Set in the late 1800s, Russian high society experiences a rumble when Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of much-revered and cherished government official Karenin (Jude Law), enters into a passionate affair with the young and affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Based on the sprawling, eponymous 800-page love story by Leo Tolstoy, even from the offset it was a daunting task for leading British playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt. Production was publicised to have fallen into significant issues in 2011, with over 269 locations in Stoppard’s screenplay, and with the budget not stretching to make shooting all that a possibility. It was director, Joe Wright, who then decided to host the majority of the tale in a run-down 19th Century theatre. It seems odd, even ironic, given Tolstoy’s mistrust in the art and event of the stage.
The opening twenty minutes are swift and fast paced as Anna’s vivacious brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) advises Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) on his upcoming marriage proposal to Kitty (Alicia Vikander); the scenery changing behind them as the extras switch their costumes. For many this will be the make or break point as to whether or not they will enjoy the rest of the film. Some will become engrossed by this bold stylisation, where others, perhaps those not so familiar with the source material, may feel a little lost. After this opening though, Anna Karenina settles and the scenes become longer and more developed, giving you a little more time to become acquainted with the characters. The surreality will continue to intrigue, however, with dancers freezing as the principals continue and sequences such as the famous steeplechase being held inside the theatre.
It’s certainly expected that costume designer Jacqueline Durran will receive an Oscar nod for her works here. Knightley looks ravishing as Anna, draped in diamonds and fur and dancing in gossamer and tulle. Looking the part, fortunately Knightley herself holds her own in the central role; as Joe Wright has pointed out in previous interviews, she has certainly grown up as an actress and woman. Bearing in mind she was 18 during the filming of Pride & Prejudice and 21 during Atonement (both Wright/Knightley collaborations), you feel her plight as a mother, lover and wife. Kelly McDonald shines in her small role as Oblonsky’s troubled wife – one of the few characters to stand by Anna’s side throughout her love affair. Law is sterling as cuckolded husband Karenin, capturing his introspection and not once raising his voice and barely moving his facial features. He is measured, rigid and unrelenting to the rules of society. He has some particularly visually striking scenes, his stoicity only adding to their arresting nature.
Where Anna Karenina loses a lot of its poignancy, though, is by weakening the connection between the stories of Levin and Anna, which are key in the novel and would have given Anna’s story much more perspective. In a sense, it is Kitty that plays the hinge of the two relationships from being spurned by Count Vronsky and then falling for the reliable charms of Levin (the character based on Tolstoy himself). From a technical point of view, the film is stunning, but with such creative vision there is a lot lost on the way; you are left feeling like you are a spectator, and the characters are so very far away.