Film Review – Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (M)

Directed by: Joe Wright

Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Three stars

Review by: Julian Wright

When a literary classic has been around since 1877, been read by millions throughout several generations and adapted countless times between film, theatre and television, it takes someone with an abundance of cinematic flair to warrant another return to the screen. Period drama fanboy Joe Wright, who is no stranger to adaptations (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), has some great ideas, not all of which are perfectly executed when bringing the tragic love story of Anna Karenina to the big screen. It is just too bad that his leading actress is not quite as imaginative when it comes to her performance.

In an immaculately designed grand theatre, Wright recreates 1874 Russia in which Anna Karenina (a particularly weepy Keira Knightley) finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place. The young and spritely wife, mother and socialite is called to visit her brother Prince Stepan Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), who was caught having an affair. While Anna tries to patch up his broken marriage to the devastated Princess Daria (Kelly Macdonald), she finds herself covering the cracks in her own to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law). Anna has a chance encounter with Count Alexi Vronski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and there is an immediate attraction. At first Anna resists, but temptation eventually takes over and the two find themselves madly in love with each other. Anna cannot divorce her husband, but makes the bold choice to continue to see her soul mate, even if it does affect her mental state, as she suffers from jealousy, insecurities and the judgements of others in society.

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Even when we take into account the source material and era the story is set in, this feels like such a huge leap backwards in terms of lead female characters. We are sympathetic to Anna’s struggles and the restrictions placed on women and their feelings in the 1800’s, but this is like rehashing something that we already knew without any new angles being explored. That is not to suggest that we should bury “old” literature simply for the sake of moving on, but perhaps a less fragile performance or a slight tweak to the character might have been beneficial. Karenina is a fleshed out character, but Knightley does little to make this woman appealing, opting for tears and tantrums over quiet fearlessness and bravery. It appears that Knightley’s well of ideas for her performance dries up at an alarming rate as she resorts to crying scene after scene, which becomes boring for the audience. Keeping in mind, this comes hot on the heels of Zero Dark Thirty, a reflection of roles women play in society today and boasts a powerful female character that is not burdened or defined by love or romantic relationships. Women have come a long way and to wallow in their once helplessness feels counterproductive.

While Knightley spends most of her screen time as a blubbering mess, it is just as well that we have Law and Taylor-Johnson to keep things lively with their equally passionate performances offering some variety. Law keeps his character’s emotions simmering beneath the surface, creating much of the film’s tension. You wonder when he is finally going to snap over his wife’s infidelities, if ever. Taylor-Johnson swings from charming to dismayed as he begins to see the situation slowly driving Anna over the edge.

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Wright’s unusual, but ultimately arresting and striking methods for bringing this story to the screen yet again allows it to be distanced from other attempts. He creates much of the story in a theatre, with backdrop changes indicating a change of scenery, and utilises the seating section to open up the scope somewhat, while his camera effotlessly glides through time and space to bring the story together. His splendid theatrical visuals are at first puzzling but eventually bewitch us before, in several sequences, are abandoned; an unfortunate inconsistency.

As passionate and visually stimulating this adaptation is, it does feel like all involved are trying desperately to add freshness to a story that may have lost some of it over the centuries and re-tellings. Some of the power of the situation is dulled – in a time where we now live our lives in front of an audience on the internet, Anna’s predicament that is thrust into the public eye and scrutinised by her judgmental peers seem almost a non-event. As a study of a descent into madness, it takes far too long to get going and as a study of women in the 1800’s it offers little insight. As a study of forbidden romance it does offer a much-needed spark.

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2 Responses to “Film Review – Anna Karenina”

  1. Nice review Julian. This movie was all about style and looking pretty, which it did very, very well. However, the story suffers because of it and with most films by Joe Wright, you can’t help but wish for more substance than just a bunch of people moping around and looking sad about something.

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