Not only that, but there are lessons for the ballet world to be found in the stylized cinematic storytelling carried out by director Wright, playwright Stoppard (who adapted Tolstoy’s panoramic novel for the big screen) and experimental choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Consider the way Wright sets much of the wide-ranging narrative about adulterous love within the tight confines of a ruined theater, with the actors moving about onstage, backstage and even on catwalks above the proscenium. At times, extras coalesce into the unison movement of an expressionistic corps de ballet.
I found myself watching this film in a sustained state of wonder. Wright’s finesse with the conventions of theater and dance is at once imaginative and logical, even practicable, in a curious way. I could envision much of the film being reproduced before a live audience in a traditional playhouse. (Not the heartbreaking horse race, of course. But there, too, compressing it into an intimate indoor space works — crazily, unexpectedly — to ratchet up the emotional stakes.)
And I was bowled over by the physical grace and understated but powerful feeling Wright summoned from a luxurious cast that was called to move, quite literally, far beyond the norms of movie stars’ duties.
As Anna, Keira Knightley pirouettes as she’s dressing, fluttering her ringed fingers with a dancer’s expressiveness. A balletic barber flings a drape around the neck of Anna’s brother Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) with the showiness of a matador swirling his cape, like something out of the ballet “Don Quixote.” As the camera follows Oblonsky striding through his office, rows of workers bent over their papers become an undulating sea of arms, their documents flapping in a gestural ballet. Servant couples waltz by as the scenery changes.
When Oblonsky’s philosophical friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) decides to leave town and head to the countryside, the rear doors of the stage burst open, and he steps through them onto a snow-covered Russian landscape — a breathtaking through-the-looking-glass moment that has a real-life counterpart. Back in 1967, Robert Joffrey’s landmark psychedelic rock ballet, “Astarte,” ended in this way, with the leading male dancer turning his back on the audience and exiting through the stage doors onto New York’s 56th Street.
There are other scenes in “Anna Karenina” that hint at totems of the dance world: Socialites’ loud, rapid fluttering of fans brings the fan-flapping section of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” to mind. At another point, partygoers awed by fireworks respond with deep, melting backbends, perhaps a nod to the famously flexible spines of Russian-schooled ballerinas.
In a feat of wonderful contrariness, the most anticipated dance moment — the ball where Anna and Vronsky fall tragically in love — is a delirious ode not to footwork or synchronized bodies but to the eroticism of hands and arms. In Cherkaoui’s laser-focused choreography, the ballgoers’ elbows and forearms dip and entwine like the necks of courting swans.