Cert: 12A Runtime: 129 mins Director: Joe Wright Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen and Jude Law
Sensual desire indulged for its own sake is the misuse of something sacred
Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is a Russian aristocrat in the 1870s. She is married to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law), a quietly spoken senior government official seen as a saint in all of Russia. Yet Anna is ready to sacrifice her position, status and her son when she embarks on affair with a young and up-and-coming cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), causing a scandal that engulfs the Russian aristocracy.Leo Tolstoy’s most prolific tragedy, Anna Karenina, is currently one of the most adapted novels of all time. There is little surprise in that fact, seeing as Karenina is one of the highest regarded books of our time, and few people can resist a love story. While Tolstoy’s novel had plenty to say about Russian society, capitalism, and religion, most film adaptations have focused chiefly on the love aspect of Anna Karenina. Joe Wright, who is responsible for this latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s work, does not deviate much from the common formula of Karenina adaptations. He does, however, mark it with a specific style, which makes this version impressively unique.The majority of the story takes place in a theater, literally. Characters can be seen not only stepping out onto the main stage for a specific scene, but may also climb the stairs backstage to arrive at another location. Though this feature is never clarified in the film, it does not detract from the substance of the story. Although such a decision could easily have decayed into a garbled mess, Wright securely controls the film’s tempo so that each scene dissolves into the next seamlessly. One advertisement for Anna Karenina claimed the doomed affair was the “greatest love story of all time.” I have personally never heard the novel spoken of in such a way, and would be surprised if anyone could draw that conclusion after seeing Wright’s film. Love abounds in Karenina, but it is not generated from the source one would expect.
Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who play the secret lovers Anna and Count Vronsky, exhibit almost zero charisma as a couple. They are constantly declaring their love at each other, but never truly showing the proper emotions. Johnson particularly is as ridiculous as his odd hairstyle. He has a complete lack of charisma. I find most of Knightley’s films dull, but have always enjoyed her in Wright’s films; they seem to have a fantastic partnership. However, she seems miscast as our title character. She does not exude the quiet strength which humanized Anna in the novel, but rather comes across as a spoiled brat determined to claim her prize. When the lovers finally commit their adulterous act, it is filmed in such an absurd fashion that one feels equally uncomfortable and amused. Fortunately, where Knightley and Johnson stumble, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander ascend. Gleeson and Vikander portray Kostya Levin and Kitty, respectively. Levin collects the entirety of the audience’s sympathy when he is disregarded by Kitty, and maintains a tender grip on our emotions as he puzzles over his failure. The couple is the highlight of this picture. If love is to be even remotely ascertained from this story, Levin and Kitty are the real embodiment of it. This is an aspect of the novel that Wright brilliantly captures. Another Wright alum returning to an endearing role in this film is Matthew Macfadyen, playing Stiva Oblonsky. Macfadyen is the comedic energy in this picture. His role is as grandiose as his comical mustache. Macfadyen is popular for his conservative roles, but proves to have a true knack for comedy as Stiva. Jude Law and Kelly Macdonald are two more actors to note. Law as the cuckolded Karenin is a role that demands an ability to display genuine emotional ache, and Law delivers. Macdonald is wonderful as the disparaged Dolly, who struggles to forgive her husband’s infidelities. Macdonald’s role is minute, but she hammers a fierce personality into her brief time on screen. Anna Karenina is an enjoyable film, though it lacks a few characteristics to make it grand. The theater concept has many people scratching their heads, and condemning the film as pretentious, but Wright and Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay, have managed to place an interesting mark on a popular story. I am not one for congratulating something based solely on attempt, but Anna Karenina does enough right that I would be remiss to dismiss it entirely.