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TORONTO, Canada — Friday night, the Toronto International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Focus Features’s Anna Karenina, the third collaboration between 39-year-old director Joe Wright and 27-year-old actress Keira Knightley, following Pride & Prejudice (2005), for which Knightley became the third-youngest woman to receive a best actress Oscar nomination, and Atonement (2007), which won the Golden Globe for best picture (drama) and was also a best picture Oscar nominee.
Like those two earlier Wright-Knightley films, this one also is an adaptation of a literary classic set centuries in the past — Leo Tolstoy‘s famous 1877 novel, adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard, who won an Oscar for writing Shakespeare in Love — but this one, unlike those two, is not a traditional Merchant-Ivory style period piece costume drama. And this one, which was greeted warmly but not exuberantly, strikes me as a sure-thing for below-the-line noms, but a longer-shot for noms in the major categories.
Sure, it, too, features stunning production design and dresses (by Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran, respectively, both of whom were Oscar-nominated for Pride and Atonement). But its setting is not sprawling country estates or greenery; rather, it all unfolds on a single theatrical stage, to emphasize the fact that 19th century Russians lived their lives as if they were on a stage. (Wright has said that he was aiming for “true cinema … like Dogville,” a 2003 film that was shot without sets.) Consequently, the transitions from scene to scene unfold almost like a polished puppet show, or Saturday Night Live.
The story, of course, revolves around Anna (Knightley), whose is tempted away from her unhappy marriage to an ineffectual aristocrat (Oscar nominee Jude Law) — who also happens to be the father of her young son — by a vibrant young cavalry officer (Aaron Johnson), with whom she engages in an affair that becomes public, one of the greatest possible violations of the social mores of the time. (Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfayden, Olivia Williams, two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson and newly minted Emmy nominee Michelle Dockery also star in the film.)
Wright has wisely cut everything but the love story from Tolstoy’s famously dense novel — and audiences today will be able to relate to the timeless assertion, “I would give up everything for love,” if not much of the rest of the film — and more emphasized its humorous elements. (“Alexi, divorce is one thing; dinner is quite another.”) But the movie is still a bit of a trudge that ultimately feels like an exercise in style over substance.
Plus, to be completely candid, there are a few things that I could never get past: I found it hard to believe that Knightley, looking so youthful, could be the mother of a boy who can already walk and talk; and I found the appearance of the two males to be more than a little weird — Johnson, last seen as a stoner in Savages, looks like a cross between Richard Dreyfuss and Tom Hulce, while Law, a handsome man in real-life, here resembles Kirk Douglas‘s Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life.
None of the many previous adaptations of Anna Karenina — including one starring Greta Garbo — was nominated for best picture or best actress, which makes me wonder if this new version, told in such a nontraditional way, can be. My hunch is that, like Pride and Atonement, it will do most of its damage in the craft categories, which is nothing to be scoffed at.
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