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.
Ralph Fiennes (the esteemed actor now best known for embodying Voldemort in the Harry Potter films) gave himself no small challenge for his first directorial effort. Coriolanus is a dense political Shakespeare play modernized by Fiennes and writer John Logan (Gladiator The Aviator Hugo) into a raw bloody war movie. The film maintains the play's original text a theatrical speech that manages to both heighten and impede the drama in certain instances. But Fiennes injects the material with unfiltered energy and even when the story is lost in its own intricacies it's visceral and commanding.
Presented against the nightmarish backdrop of "Rome " a Children of Men-esque land devastated by raging battles Coriolanus follows the troubled political career of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) a general who fights resistance movements butts heads with local protestors and evades attack from influential statesmen. Martius is driven by one goal: to defeat his former friend and long-time nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) leader of the opposing Volscian army. Rather than attend to the city's rioting population the general joins his military squad to breach the Volscian's walls in hopes of going mano a mano with Aufidius. Martius achieves victory after victory (without putting an end to his Aufidius troubles) becoming a hero to his government. Eventually through his overbearing mother's persuasion Martius is convinced to put down his semi-automatic and begin an ascent to political greatness. It doesn't go so well.
Even if the abridged version of Coriolanus presented in the adaptation was a slow-paced talky drama every detail of Shakespeare's complicated narrative may still be difficult to parse but Fiennes isn't looking to hold any hands. He shoots his movie with the kineticism of a Bourne movie or the recent Hurt Locker full of shaky cam movement and too-close-for-comfort close-ups. He uses the extreme presentation of 24 news networks to replicate in Shakespeare's expository asides while bombarding our senses. He has a cast who can deliver The Bard's poetic dialogue with a cadence that fits realistic setting. The sound and feel of the language is as important as the meaning.
Fiennes isn't as concerned with audiences registering every last minutiae of Coriolanus and he takes every opportunity he can to let his cast off their leash to dig into the drama's inherent intensity. The director/actor plays Caius Martius Coriolanus like a rabid dog—crazed behind the eyes and ready to unleash a barrage of hellfire and spit. Butler's Tullus Aufidius is a low-key foil but when the two finally butt heads neither gentleman holds back. The real stand out is Vanessa Redgrave as Martius' mother Volumnia whose hushed manipulation is even more terrifying than Martius' over aggression.
Coherence isn't the priority in Coriolanus and attempts to connect with the characters becomes a chore but Fiennes's first foray into directing is enjoyable in the exhilaration it delivers to a time-honored text. Forget your memories of 11th grade English—this is unique adrenaline-infused Shakespeare.