"“As much as I appreciate the grandiose direction by Wright, it does make the film feel quite detached and away from sentiment…”"
Following on from the original screenplay of Hanna, Atonement and Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright is back doing what he does best; adapting literature – this time taking on the much celebrated and renowned Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina.
Keira Knightley takes on the title role of Anna Karenina, portraying an aristocrat and socialite, married to her older, affluent husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). Living with their only son, everything seems to be going well between the pair, until Anna visits her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) where she meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson) and unwillingly falls in love.
Given the late 19th century setting, for a wife to fall for another man is uncommon and frowned upon within society – so Anna must decide whether she believes Vronsky to be worth the forthcoming controversy, as a divorce would see her ostracised from the inner circle, and thus unable to keep in contact with her son. Meanwhile, whilst Anna contemplates her fate, we follow the story of the impoverished Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is also on the quest for love, hoping to win the heart of the seemingly unattainable Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
If there is one aspect to Anna Karenina that can’t be faulted, is Wright’s ability to make this potentially intimidating novel accessible to a wider, cinema-going audience. Some may be put off by the fact this film is based upon Russian 19th century literature, yet Wright ensures this isn’t a problem at all, although one could argue he loses some of the essence of the novel as a result.
In an almost Moulin Rouge inspired setting, Anna Karenina is surrealistically set in a theatre, whilst the scenes blend into one another smartly, choreographed in the process. The film ticks along at a fast pace as everything appears almost as a dance, adding to the flamboyance of aristocratic Russia during such a period – creating the perfect setting – an aspect Bel Ami suffered from greatly.
Wright manages to take this lengthy piece and fit it all into a compact environment, as different settings and cities even are cut between by a simple step sideways. As a result Wright makes this grand production feel somewhat intimate due to the blending of scenes, as he makes out the entire story is taking place under the one, same roof. Even the train the characters ride, when zoomed out of is a mere toy set, symbolising just how much Wright has descaled this immense story.
Considered one of the finest pieces of literature ever written, there is much analysing to be done from a casting perspective, as fans of the novel will already have a clear idea of how the characters are portrayed within their own heads. Despite having reservations towards the casting of Knightley, she does well to an extent – as her somewhat obscure look seems fitting to the 19th century setting. However, I feel she fails to truly encapsulate the more emotional side to this persona, of which is immensely important to the overall story.
Such a sentiment is echoed in the performance of Johnson as Vronsky, a character supposedly a carrier of a vast amount of charm and charisma. However he is lacking in such character traits, and as a result devalues the entire film – as we need to see the magnetism of Vronsky to help validate and appreciate the predicament Anna has got herself into. The stand-out performer on the other hand is Law, who brings a real sense of sincerity and endearment to the role of the beleaguered husband Alexei.
Law aside, the biggest fault of Anna Karenina is the lack of emotion – quite damaging to the overall picture given it’s based on one of the most emotionally gripping novels of all time. As much as I appreciate the grandiose direction by Wright, it does make the film feel quite detached and away from sentiment, becoming too much of a cinematic event rather than a poignant depiction and study of one woman’s declining, troubled state of mind. Therefore we simply don’t care enough for the character, and thus when any potentially upsetting scenes occur, they aren’t met with the sensitive and passionate response required.
Anna Karenina was always going to be a tough adaptation for Wright to take on, and although he has handled it well in some respects – creating a watchable movie that certainly looks the part – ultimately it just doesn’t touch the right nerve and it’s lack of emotion proves a stumbling block. A shame, as the overall premise and themes of tainted love and desire are as relevant today as they ever have been, yet we simply don’t relate to this film as much as we should do, or want to.