Movies like "Anna Karenina" are what people mean when talking about Hollywood magic. Director Joe Wright has taken the much-told tale of the late 19th-century Russia heroine and cast a cinematic spell to make his film version as compelling as it is creative.
It's not only one of the best and most beautifully staged movies of the past year, it easily belongs in that category for any movies released since the start of the 21st century.
At the heart is the story of love and betrayal among Russian society in the late 19th century, penned by Leo Tolstoy. Socialite Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) puts her status in jeopardy when she falls in lust with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). What makes this film different than past adaptations is a script that digs deeper into other story lines and a direction that is brilliantly unique.
There was little question Wright would be able to give proper life to the character of Anna Karenina. He is known for showing great skill with movies featuring complicated female leads -- "Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement," "Hanna." He performs the same directing magic to get a performance from Knightley that would win over fans of these lavish costumed dramas.
It helps that Knightley has become the consummate actress for these timeless stories. She brings the passion and pain needed to portray tortured and tortuous characters that immediately gives the film a solid credibility. It's a plus that this is the third time Knightley and Wright have worked together. This has become a near perfect artistic union of actor and director.
Knightley doesn't make this film work alone. She's surrounded by a superb cast, from the quietly moving performance by Jude Law as her stoic husband to Taylor-Johnson's passionate turn as her lover.
Writer Tom Stoppard -- who showed the same ability to give a classic story a modern twist with his script for "Shakespeare in Love" -- has crafted a story with more sexual energy than any previous adaptation. That gives the film -- and the characterization of Karenina -- an additional level of intrigue, energy and intellect.
Stoppard's attention to the secondary story of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) -- who also has lustful feelings for Vronsky -- creates an interesting parallel story that's been ignored in past adaptations.
Wright elevates the movie beyond the typical trappings of the genre by the way he's staged the production. He's created a theater space where the action weaves on and off the stage. It's as if he's found the previously unknown art form created by the union of a movie, stage production and ballet.
There is a slight similarity to the way "Moulin Rouge" was shot, but that musical never used the theater as anything but a stage for the actors. This stage is a fluid space shifting to fit the current need of a scene.
Three-time Academy Award-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood leaves no part of the theater unused, even to the point of turning the lofty rafters into the setting for a city street. When the scene calls for an ice skating rink, the seats are removed and the frozen surface takes over the circular setting. The only time the actors and cameras leave this enclosed environment is for the secondary story. But, the action always quickly returns to the main stage.
Adding to the marvelous flow is that many actors play multiple roles and can go from one character to another with a change of costume often performed on screen. Such a tactic might have been a distraction, if overused. Wright found the right mix to make such action compelling.
The tendency when making films based on great literature is to pay an almost unshakable reverence to the material. Wright shows a deep respect for Tolstoy's novel while displaying an understanding that such material needs to be given a fresh look to entertain a modern audience looking for more than a straight reading of the book.
That's the magic of Wright's "Anna Karenina."
"Anna Karenina," rated R for adult situations, violence. Stars Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Directed by Joe Wright. Running time: 130 minutes. Grade: A Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.