Directed by: Joe Wright.
Written by: Tom Stoppard based on the book by Leo Tolstoy.
Starring: Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Jude Law (Alexei Karenin), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Count Vronsky), Kelly Macdonald (Dolly), Matthew Macfadyen (Oblonsky), Domhnall Gleeson (Konstantin Levin), Ruth Wilson (Princess Betsy), Alicia Vikander (Kitty), Olivia Williams (Countess Vronskaya), Michelle Dockery (Princess Myagkaya), Emily Watson (Countess Lydia), Holliday Grainger (The Baroness), Shirley Henderson (Meme Kartasov), Bill Skarsgård (Captain Machouten), Cara Delevingne (Princess Sorokina).
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that is the case with Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. Without a huge budget to do this period piece with the same style that most movies of its ilk are done, Wright has to find a way to tell this epic story more economically. This is apparently the reason why much of the movie is set on a stage – as if what we are watching is a play adaptation of the novel. Wright’s theatricality goes beyond simple set design though – much of the action and acting has that same theatrical bent to it as well. The movie moves with the same rhythm of a stage musical at times. While some will undoubtedly hate what Wright does in this film, after I got used to it, I kind of loved it. It’s completely different than any other period piece in recent memory. The movie has a different problem though holding it back from greatness – the great romance at the center of the movie that drives all the action, rings hollow. I just never believed that this Anna would love this Vronsky so much that she gives up everything in her life for him.
Keira Knightley plays Anna – who is married to the boring Alexi Karenin (Jude Law) is what is merely a marriage of convenience. When the movie opens, she is travelling to Moscow to try and talk her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly McDonald) from divorcing her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Mcfadyen) over an affair he had with the governess. Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) has two suitors – the humble, but wealthy, farmer Konstantin (Domhnall Gleeson), and the dashing, military man from a respectable family Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Kitty rejects Konstantin’s proposal, even though it’s clear to everyone he is madly in love with her, and holds onto hope that the sexier Vronsky will propose instead – which he very well might have, except that he locks eyes with Anna, and is immediately smitten. He’ll follow her back to St. Petersburg, where she’ll try to resist his charms, but will eventually fail. When she becomes pregnant, the secret that was only whispered about becomes impossible to hide.
The movie, like the novel, uses the three central couples to highlight the hypocrisy in Russian society in those days. What Oblonsky does, and continues to do even after he is caught, is viewed as socially acceptable behavior – he certainly pays no price for his indiscretions. What Anna, who actually falls in love, and not just lust like her brother, makes herself a social pariah – and loses everything because of her love. And when they finally do get together, Konstantin and Kitty share a more pure kind of love – it may not have the highs and lows of Anna’s great love, but they really do love each other.
The problem with the movie is that I just never believed that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky was such an irresistible sexual force that Anna could simply not resist him. As played by Taylor-Johnson, he seems more like a shallow, superficial playboy – a spoiled, bratty teenager and not a great lover. Had that been the intent, of Tolstoy or Wright, it may have worked, but I don’t think that’s what they’re going for. After all, even with all the social pressure on him, he doesn’t abandon Anna – he loves her as deeply as she loves him. Knightley fares better as Anna than Taylor-Johnson, but because I never believed him, I found it hard to completely buy her as well. Knightley is almost distractedly beautiful in this movie – cloaked in some of the best, most gorgeous costumes of the year, and clearly made up to be at the height of her beauty, and she`s good as Anna – but not quite great.
The performance in the film that is great though is Jude Law`s as Alexi Karenin, Anna`s boring husband. This is a subtle performance – one where Law never raises his voice, never lets his emotions get the best of him. Yet, he can still be cruel and heartless, and at the same time, sympathetic. After all, he really doesn`t do anything wrong – except be boring. He even forgives Anna when she thinks she is dying and wants to die with honor – only to be thrown over a second time when she recovers.
The film is a still a triumph for director Wright though – at least at a visual level. The film is mesmerizing, and its style helps to overcome some of the problems with the substance of the movie. Some will find the whole style distracting – and the film`s storytelling confusing at first, but once I got into it, I loved what Wright does here. If he had found a better Vronsky, he may have even made a truly great film.