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.
Handsome James (Paul Dawson) is a bit depressed. In the opening scene he pees while taking a bath and then sets up his camera as he fellates himself while a stalker across the street (Peter Stickles) watches. Then James cries. He's miserable and his boyfriend Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) doesn't know what to do. They go to a sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). She in turn has incredible sex--or at least finds incredible positions--with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) but she can't achieve an orgasm. They all end up at a wild club called Shortbus which looks like a room even Caligula would love and whose guests range from a former mayor of New York to a popular drag queen Justin Bond (playing his/herself). It's at Shortbus where James and Jamie meet young Ceth (Jay Brannan) and to try to add spice to their relationship while Sofia meets an angry dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish) who thinks she can help with Sofia's quest. The most amazing part of Shortbus comes from the performers who are as real as it gets. Mitchell tries to get the actors to play parts of themselves asking them to reenact their most bizarre sexual experiences and developing the storylines around them. With that Mitchell is quoted in the press notes as saying that every orgasm is genuine--except one and he's not saying which one. For this reason perhaps the cast is filled with virtual unknowns except for a few choice cameos (character actor/publicist Mickey Cottrell with a dead guy in a whirlpool is a particularly good one). But the players are all superb in their own individual ways especially Dawson as the sad-eyed stud and Lee as the desperate therapist. Beamish also shows quite an emotional range and looks like a modern-day Cyndi Lauper. Watch for her star to rise. John Cameron Mitchell best known for his searing little indie gem Hedwig and the Angry Inch apparently auditioned 100 people by throwing a rather sexually open party not unlike the parties shown in the film. But Mitchell has got more than an inch showing up in Shortbus. It's as if he has re-made The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a non-musical live NC-17 version. All the film’s sexual explicitness seems almost voyeuristic but dances around being pornographic or grotesque. In fact the scenes are often devoid of eroticism coming across as funny creepy and sad instead. Mitchell also paints an intriguing canvas mixing animation and art as the camera swoops into different neighborhoods around Manhattan. Ultimately the parade of sexuality and bizarre characters plays like a Federico Fellini film but it makes much more sense. Mitchell's picture is raw but heartfelt and it’s going to make audiences uncomfortable. But obviously that's the point.