Russia in the 19th century is a place of great turbulence and change. Amongst high society the aristocrat Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) lives an extravagant but emotionally vapid life with her powerful husband the esteemed and respected Karenin (Jude Law). Upon visiting her brother and relatives in Moscow she haphazardly enters into an exciting and life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), throwing away all the trappings and respect she has forged through her title and place in society to be with him.
“You don’t ask why with love” says the count as Anna questions his and we too should not ask why regarding the romantic theatre-style mise en scene that director Joe Wright masterfully adopts in the bigger, impressionistic lavish set pieces. The film ebbs and flows as the background literally changes and actors help to move props, furniture and walls in place. The instruments from the soundtrack are often seen being played in the background and the players in the scene bob and dance about before they settle into the next act. Oftentimes the main act is so important and absorbing that the extras and other actors in the background literally freeze and it is astonishing to behold.
It is an amazing stylistic device used to – unfortunately - seldom effect by Wright and one that makes the period drama trappings of Anna Karenina shine brightly, only recede back into tedium with long uneventful talking scenes. Regarding his technical prowess, his long takes are some of the best in modern film history. The exquisite score by Dario Marianelli also helps bring each emotionally charged scene to life, and it’s a soundtrack I won’t soon forget.
Keira Knightley’s portrayal of the frustrating Anna and her complex situation is an excellent one and very true to the book. She has impressive and different chemistry with both her lover the count and the viceroy Karenin which is easily Jude Law’s best performance in a long time. He plays this powerful figure without empathy but with a strange longing and understanding. He is a good man and overall wants to keep up appearances and you do feel for him given the circumstance and his beliefs.
This is Wright’s second adaptation of a classic; arguably the greatest novel written of a fallen woman. Here Wright uses each set piece against Anna, particularly in the second half where it feels the walls are closing in and society turns against her as her paranoia and other issues set in.
There are a few subplots that interweave into the story following other love interests from relatives and friends of the Karenina’s and they unfortunately distract from the power play between Anna and her story but ultimately this strange wintry place is an engrossing one and it is both a visually stunning and emotionally engaging experience.
Anna Karenina breathes new life into period drama by giving literal meaning to mise en scene as each crucial moment comes to vivid life and the whole set piece changes before your eyes. This incredible decision unfortunately makes the rest of the film look weak and uninteresting by comparison, but there is still enough to admire here.
[rating=3] and a half
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton Twitter here: @Kwenton