Forget that the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's sweeping romance novel comes from the man who brought us the slick-but-stuffy Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Every frame of director Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is a wonder to behold overflowing with visual spectacle and roaring performances. Keira Knightley Jude Law Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the rest of the cast fit perfectly in the high drama epic but it's really Wright's playground. Following Hanna an artful spin on the action movie Wright returns to the period drama but injects it with dazzling daring choices. A book like Anna Karenina could once fit in reality but its larger-than-life legacy precedes it. Wright acknowledges that from frame one approaching the film like a grand ballet or opera where grand gestures broad emotions and overt theatrics are commonplace. That vision clicks transforming Anna Karenina into an exhilarating moviegoing experience.
The storyline of Anna Karenina isn't far off from a daytime soap: It's 1874 and Anna (Knightley) is floating through existence as the wife of influential government player Karenin (Law). But when her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) summons her to Moscow to save his marriage Anna's entire world is shaken up. She meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson) a cavalry hunk who finds himself smitten with the taken lady. She's in the same boat: The two strike up a flirtatious relationship that evolves into one of sexual passion. A scandalous affair would incite trouble in the preset day but in the 19th century it's the ultimate crime. Quickly Anna's life comes crumbling down.
The intertwining melodrama of Anna Karenina earned the novel its classic status but Wright uses the material as a launching pad for imagination rather than a tome to translate to screen. Many of the scenes are staged in a theater creating an instant awareness of the production. Sets shift and are reconstructed into new rooms; actors costume change in the span of single shots; action sequences like a thrilling horse race are conducted on stage with special effects you might see on Broadway. Wright works this sort of stylization in the other direction too; a character could walk an empty stage open a door and suddenly be on a snow-covered hill. Anna Karenina isn't the first film to use the effect but in Wright's hands it's exhilarating.
The movie is Wright's third collaboration with Knightley and easily their most successful. Knightley never struggles to stay on the same page as the heightened material whether she's nailing a dance sequence or breaking down in a flood of tears. Casting an ensemble around Knightley is no easy task but Taylor-Johnson gives his best work yet as the debonair love interest and Macfadyen steals the show with moments of physical comedy.
We have expectations of the texture and structure of period romances. Anna Karenina defies them. Masterpiece Theater it is not.
"You can make her do anything you want… For men everywhere tell me you're not going to let that go to waste."
It's a chilling turn of phrase that Chris Messina's character Henry utters when he meets the woman that his brother Calvin wrote into being. Calvin played by Paul Dano is a frustrated writer but more than that a writer who published to great acclaim at a young age who has yet to do anything since. He begins writing a character named Ruby Sparks and as he falls in love with his creation he can't stop writing. It's exhilarating and addictive. Played by Dano's real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan Ruby Sparks is a one-dimensional male fantasy a cutesy young woman on roller skates… until she appears in his kitchen one morning. Calvin quickly learns that even though he can control her with a few taps on his typewriter Ruby has an ever-changing will of her own.
Ruby Sparks is written by Kazan with the sort of bite that a trailer can't be tied up with a neat little bow. There is gorgeous California sunshine an airy house in a hip part of Los Angeles the trendy Figaro café where Calvin finds out that other people can see Ruby and a delightful interlude with Calvin's hippie mother and stepfather played by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. As gorgeous and gleeful and wide-eyed as Ruby is and as much as Calvin adores her the relationship develops and changes even as he succumbs to the temptation to rewrite her. Calvin an essentially insecure man unravels and becomes more and more of a controlling jerk until he's faced with the truth of how far he's willing to go to keep Ruby from leaving him. It becomes sad and frankly disturbing with an admirably raw performance by Kazan that lingers.
While Ruby Sparks serves as an interesting commentary on wish fulfillment in fiction writing its juicy subtext is far more important. Under the surface the film delves into how we're culpable for the way we see our lovers and how we want to change them or make them something they're not. Eventually Calvin has to decide whether or not he wants to continue editing Ruby to fit his specifications; he has to face that that means about him as a person and as a man. It's Pygmalion with a feminist twist. We see plenty of dumb romantic comedies about women tricking men into changing but it seems like there's an endless parade of indie films written by men about loveably girly women whose only reason for being is to act as a catalyst for the man's emotional growth. While this is absolutely true in some ways for Ruby and Calvin there's a meat to the script and Kazan's performance that makes "Ruby" rise to the top. There are plenty of words (or that overused phrase) we can use to describe Ruby but in the end Calvin wrote those traits into her and these are details that Ruby shucks off as she grows. Similarly as women grow up we learn we can (and have to) stop performing tricks to become the person our significant other wants or sees in us.
Without revealing too much the end of Ruby Sparks could be read a number of ways. On one hand it is a bit of a misstep that undermines the general thrust of the story but it could also be seen as simply a happier more hopeful ending. Romantics will find it satisfying but those hoping for Ruby's full emancipation might find it lacking.
This is the first film for directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since 2006's Little Miss Sunshine and although they have much in common — including Dano — Ruby is a darker unrulier movie. The idea of movie-goers being led in to see Ruby because of Faris and Dayton's names or because of the trailer is delightful because they're going to get a little bit of a different experience than they're prepared for.
[Full disclosure: I interviewed Zoe Kazan for a profile in the August/September issue of BUST magazine.]