Anna Karenina Review
by Laurie Coker
As a lover of stage and theatre I delighted in director Joe Wright’s vision of Anna Karenina from a script by Tom Stoppard, based on the 19th century Leo Tolstoy novel. Starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law, Wright lays down his Karenina, with his typical visually stunning lavish costumed fair and on elaborate stage sets for most of his gorgeous version of the novel. So taken was I with his monumental visual undertaking and his excellent cast (many of his films include Knightly), that I forgive inconsistencies in his the narrative and its interpretation.
In Anna Karenina, Knightly plays Anna, the wife of a Russian aristocrat (Law) who trades everything dear to her – including a son – in the name of elicit love and a torrid affair, with a Russian military officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Her more than patient husband first looks to “save” her reputation, but her unwavering, obsessive passion for the far younger Vronsky pulls her deeper into an abyss of social rejection and emotional suffering, and finally all save her lover forsake her. And rightly so, in a society where men are men and women should never, ever cross the line from the dutiful wife and doting mother role.
Certainly, Wright takes a major artistic risk, and he (and Stoppard) dare to reimagine this classic work of Russian literature by setting the most of it in a strikingly concieved, decaying Russian theater. He seeks, and successfully renders an imperialistic Russia and its preoccupation with style and appearance (both physically and socially). This risk pays off – adding a fresh uniqueness not often seen in classic literature-inspired films. And, like the film Moulin Rouge, Wright’s pacing in his first act is quick and almost cheerful, adding a comic flair, especially concerning Anna’s philandering brother (a delightful, award-worthy performance by Matthew Macfayden). Set in the theatre on stage and behind the scenes, his film has the feel of live English theatre. I should note, however, he does take us outside the theatre – into the Russian countryside to meet other characters, with higher morals and emptier pocketbooks. This contrast is notable, but thematically unclear.
For all the presentation freshness, Wright’s film is far from perfect. While it appealed to me, a theatre aficionado, much of his film’s first act plays out in a turbulent train of quick cuts, perplexing dialog and character introduction after character introduction, some of which seem totally unconnected. After it spins and winds though its whirlwind exposition, it does finally settle down and flow though its plot. When moving from stage to natural setting, the film loses its pacing a bit, but I feel like a second viewing will warrant me more clarity of director’s choices here. At least, this is my hope since I’d gladly see it again.
Still, even the story is unlevel and sometime subplots, like one involving a pair of young lovers, played by and Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson, prove more interesting than Anna’s terribly tragic tale. At certain points the story slows or lingers too long. Simply put, Stoppard and Wright’s story is an uneven representation of Tolstoy’s iconic novel. But their cast excels – each remarkable in his or her rendition of the characters. Knightly does this type of tragic heroine well and often has, so I expected a perfect performance. Law, however, amazes as her tortured husband – cool, outwardly stoic and patient to a fault. He is almost unrecognizable physically and characteristically. Taylor-Jackson, too, melds into his character, blond pretty boy with a penchant for an older women, and he falls hard and fast – never a good thing; thematically it’s almost Shakespearean in feel, with the same vibrant imagery and calamitous characters,
Given my literary background, admiration of period pieces and love of theatre, I am probably less critical of Wright than others might be. I do hate filmmakers who totally bastardize a literary piece, but appreciate a director’s right to artistic license. From me, Anna Karenina earns a B+. I plan to see it again soon.