Rarely has there been a tale so consistently revisited as Leo Tolstoy’s universally beloved Anna Karenina. Since the turn of the twentieth century there have been countless adaptations, from operas to ballets, musicals to radio shows, and television dramas to almost a dozen big screen interpretations. Today we find Keira Knightley stepping into Karenina’s oft-strung bodice, with regular collaborator Joe Wright bringing an ambitious slant to his director duties.
It’s been said that all the world is a stage, and for Karenina and her 19th century Russian society pals, it really is. Wright stages his adaptation largely within the confines of a theatre, the imposing proscenium arch taking the place of the fourth wall. Consequently ever-moving sets roll in and out around the characters, as the camera dances through the unfurling drama. There’s even an air of faux-musical to the way scenes transition from one to the next, moving to a very purposeful rhythm set by Dario Marianelli’s wonderful score, which should see the composer nominated for his third Oscar.
It’s a daring move, although one reportedly due to budgetary issues, that begins as something of a curio, develops into a source of brief amusement before becoming an unfortunate distraction. When the action finally does leave the theatre setting, it’s as if new life has been injected into the film. The stuffiness, no matter how purposeful, is overbearing when combined with the film’s length and the seriousness of the story. That said, the sets are cleverly designed and absolutely beautiful, much like the costumes, cinematography and Ms. Knightley, who may well have to travel back to the Ice Age in order to find a period in time where she looks anything less than radiant.
For those unfamiliar with the classic novel, the story follows Karenina, a married socialite from St. Petersburg, who embarks on a torrid and passionate affair with a younger man whilst visiting her brother in Moscow. It’s hardly original today but upon publication Tolstoy’s encounters with hypocrisy, gender rights, divorce, and fidelity were launched into a society far less attuned with scandal than ours, at least on the surface.
Knightley, who has arguably become Hollywood’s most divisive actress, is a fine choice for title role. We already know that few modern actresses look quite so comfortable in period films, but there’s far more to her performance than a natural ability to work a ball gown. Knightley’s rigid English frostiness is a great fit for Karenina’s aloof anti-heroine. The character is a riddle of amorality, on one hand she loves her young son and respects her dutiful husband, yet on the other she willingly succumbs to every temptation regarding Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Knightley handles these different sides of the character with ease. Her talents have developed hugely over the years, yet somehow this performance doesn’t quite match her finest work. Perhaps it is the constraints of the character, or more pertinently that Karenina prompts so little sympathy from the audience, but this is not the potentially Oscar-winning performance that some were tentatively predicting.
In comparison Johnson as Vronsky has prompted the harshest reproach from critics, yet I found his performance perfectly adequate. The seductive quality he brings to the role is entirely believable, and while I must admit there is an element of a young boy playing dress up, for the most part he acts through it. Jude Law on the other hand, delivers his finest work in years. He convinces as Karenina’s betrayed husband, displaying a newfound maturity and with the right campaign, could find himself firmly within the Supporting Actor mix. Outside of this the ensemble are just as impressive. The likes of Kelly MacDonald, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, and Matthew Macfayden each make an impression for all of the right reasons, away from the central triangle.
However the fact remains that Anna Karenina is emotionally cold. Moments of brilliance, such as the Karenina and Vronsky’s first dance, and the intensely staged horse race, are drowned in a sea of heavyweight drama that never manages to penetrate the emotional core of the audience. No amount of beautiful imagery, and there is plenty on offer here, can overcome the fact that the romance is disconcertingly distant compared to Wright’s previous work on Atonement, where the central love affair swept one up into the beating heart of every embrace between its lovelorn characters. As such this is a solid reinterpretation of the classic tale, that deserves all the attention it gets for artistic merit, but as a great dramatic epic it fails to deliver what is promised.