WRITTEN BY: Tom Stoppard
DIRECTED BY: Joe Wright
STARRING: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen
RATING: 3 stars
A lot of people complain that the protagonist in Anna Karenina is not likeable. But that's the point. Anna is a woman who gives up everything in her normal, boring life for a spark of romance that she thinks is love and it leads to her downfall. In many ways, it is a cautionary tale by iconic Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Anna is one of the great tragic figures in literature and her story has been adapted to film many times before, including a great performance from Vivien Leigh in 1948, but no depiction has ever come close to the essence of the novel. Sadly, while the latest attempt from writer Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright is commendable, it too misses the mark at times.
Set in 1874, before the Russian revolution, Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to a government minister named Karenin (Jude Law). She is a mother to one son and spends much of her time at various social engagements in St Petersburg. She catches a train one day to Moscow to see her brother (Matthew Macfadyen) and along the way she meets Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), who is met at the station by her son, cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Sparks fly between Anna and Vronsky, and she soon sacrifices her position in society to be with him. Meanwhile, the young Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) does his best to woo Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who is also infatuated with Vronsky.
What sets this film apart from other adaptations is the style of the film making and the mise en scene. Wright, who previously worked with Knightley on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement (films I hated) has made the brave stylistic choice of filming most of the scenes almost as if it were a stage production. While it doesn't always work, it is an admirable effort. The cinematography and music blend well together and add to the tone of the period, especially in scenes such as the ball. However, the film was more than two hours long and did not need to be.
It's not a secret to readers of this blog that I think Knightley is the worst and most annoying actress to (dis)grace the screen. Having said that, I actually think she was quite good in this role. She didn't deserve any award nominations for it, but she did do the complex character justice. Law had an underused role as Anna's hopelessly betrayed husband, but props must go to him for immersing himself in the role and being almost unrecognisable under the full beard and glasses. Macfadyen, who was awful in Pride and Prejudice, was much better in this film. He was very funny and stole almost every scene he was in. I had my doubts about Taylor-Johnson for the role of the young lover but he too was quite convincing.
Die hard fans of the novel, like me, will have their issues with the representation of the story in this film. But if you're a fan of period pieces with lavish costumes then Anna Karenina is worth a look.