Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina clearly carries the spirit of its period-drama predecessors (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) in its lush costuming, focus on gesture, dance scenes, and, of course, its leading lady. Keira Knightley stars in all three, and in some cases her characters feel almost interchangeable—this latest performance lacks the raw spark of her turn in Atonement and is no real match for her electric portrayal in A Dangerous Method.
Of course, the most buzzed-about component of Anna Karenina is the emphasis on conscious theatricality. Though Tolstoy’s novel is regarded by some as a pinnacle of realist fiction, the newest adaptation moves away from a naturalistic setting. Instead, Wright gives us a movie set in an actual theater, where the stage, curtains, set, etc. transition seamlessly from scene to scene. The theater becomes a ballroom, a racetrack, and a mesmerizing green field in turn.
The result is enchanting, hypnotic, and confusing by turns. This approach to setting can serve many metaphorical functions: pointing out the theatricality of Imperial Russian society, the artificiality of the cinema, the conscious gaze itself. But it also serves to detract from the pure power of the story–which is a good thing or a bad thing depending on your position as a viewer. For those familiar with the story of Anna Karenina, who turned out to see the period details and Keira Knightley’s breathless acting, the setting gimmicks might be a boon.
The pacing of the film also lurches, mirroring the movement of the plot itself. The birth of Anna’s child with Vronsky feels as if it should be an ending point–a climax, with both Vronksy and Karenin somewhat reconciled to each other in the face of Anna’s impending death. When Anna fails to die, the film heaves itself back into motion, chronicling the slow and bitter fading of Vronsky’s love for Anna and her demise. This second part drags itself out somewhat torturously–which makes sense given the tortured emotions of Anna’s own life.
This version of the film is certainly something different (it has big shoes to fill, considering the Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh adaptations of Anna Karenina)—one can imagine this film being dissected in some scholarly article on cinema years from now, since it richly offers so much to critique, discuss, and articulate. Ultimately, viewing Joe Wright’s treatment of Anna Karenina becomes less about the power of love (Aaron Johnson doesn’t read as quite convincing in the role of Vronsky, and his dyed-blond curls are a little ridiculous) and more about the power of visual enchantment.
But if this movie doesn’t win an Oscar for costuming, I’m sure more than one of us will be flabbergasted.
tl;dr Worth watching for the setting innovations and lush costuming, lacks chemistry and a strong focus on plot
P.S. I was surprised to see Mr. Darcy crop up in this movie. Mathew Macfadyen is convincingly mustachioed into Anna’s fat, whimsical, womanizing brother. The change is astonishing…google it. A couple of Downton Abbey regulars crop up in the film too!