Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) and acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) have collaborated to bring Leo Tolstoy's classic 1877 novel, Anna Karenina, an emotional tale of infidelity and Imperial Russian scandal, to the screen. Wright has once again reunited with his muse, Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice), and though this is an inventive and visually lush adaptation, it is as awe-inspiringly beautiful in the technical department as the story and the performances are dull, and considering the talented individuals involved, this equates to a disappointing and forgettable experience. Anna Karenina (Knightley) is a rich socialite lives in St. Petersburg. She is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), an older and much respected statesman. When she is requested by her brother, Prince Stepan Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), to journey to Moscow to help him rescue his marriage to his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), she catches the eye of Count Alexi Vronski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a handsome cavalry officer on leave. After some courting, Anna surrenders herself to his charms and sets in motion an affair that results in her becoming a disrespected outcast and her dutiful husband threatening a messy divorce.
There is an intentional interaction between theatre and cinema here, and also theatre and life, with much of Anna Karenina set on a single interchanging stage that often morphs into a completely different story setting. The characters sometimes leave the frame and return in different costumes. While early attention is drawn to this feat - which is incredible, considering the length of some of the takes and the amount of impeccably costumed extras present, and the efficiency of the set and wardrobe changes - this gradually plays less of a role in the latter stages. It becomes more of a film that is shot on location than a filmed stage production. This has thematic significance, considering the theatrical lives of the Russian elitists - Anna breaks the rules of her role and is ostracised not for her infidelity, which can be forgiven and forgotten, but because she goes off script.
The novelty soon begins to wear off however, and with the characters and narrative less than compelling, the visual stimulation has less impact the deeper into the film we go. Still, any accolades in the categories of Production Design and Costumes would be well deserved. It is also beautifully shot and scored by previous Joe Wright collaborators Seamus McGarvey and Dario Marianelli (respectively). Tom Stoppard is renowned for his ingenious integration of the audience into his plays. Here he blends the spectacle of the screen with the aura of the theatre, and while the story has quite heavy melodrama, he does infuse it with some farcical humour. Some of it is effective.
Keira Knightley possesses some frustrating mannerisms that are apparent in most of her roles. It continues to feel like I am watching 'Keira Knightly on screen' and not her representation of a character. She can be charming, funny and beautiful, and she can portray a hysterical emotional wreck - extremes of her performance here - but never did Anna feel like much deviation from some of the characters she has portrayed in the past. I think it is time for Joe Wright to think about casting someone else.
Also, Aaron Johnson is not good in this film. There is no evident chemistry between he and Knightley, and beyond walking into a scene and making suggestive eye contact toward the intriguingly attracted Anna, he does little else. Thank goodness for the presence of Law, who is terrific as Karenin, a man who is humiliated but still possesses such great pride in the bond of marriage that he offers Anna multiple chances to reconsider her decisions. He's the one character we sympathise with. Also, Matthew Macfayden provides timely charisma and almost always drew a laugh from the audience. There is also some solid support from Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson, whose subplot is charming but has little bearing on the central narrative.
Stoppard and Wright have tried gamely to create something fresh with their version of Tolstoy's classic work, but considering how simplified the story is, the film's length is unwarranted and Knightley’s brooding soon begins to sound like a broken record. There are some hints as to how this tale will end, and after a while we begin to wish it would hurry up and get there.
Not even the vibrant visuals and lovely orchestrations can distract one from the fact that this film doesn’t strike a chord emotionally.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.