After it was first published in a series of installments, Anna Karenina became symbolic for Leo Tolstoy’s massive contribution to world literature. The novel has been numerously adapted for the stage and screen, but the latest interpretation by director Joe Wright combines both. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfayden, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson and Michelle Dockery, to name a few, the film presents an original vision of Russian high society.
As the story is filmed literally on stage, the rapidly moving camera creates the impression of the busy social atmosphere and splendour of Russian cities. The various set-ups represent the homes of different families while the wider spaces serve the purpose of revealing a look at aristocracy on a grander scale. Against this background we see the story of Anna Karenina (Keira Knightely), a married woman, whose passionate affair with Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) leads to her demise. The main plot line intersects two other stories dealing with the internal torments of couples. The story actually starts with Anna going to Moscow to solve a conflict between her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Meanwhile, the young Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is on his way to give up city life for the peace of the countryside because he has been neglected by his only love, Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
The costumes by Jacqueline Durran are beautiful while the photography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement,The Soloist,The Hours and We Need to Talk About Kevin) and editing by Melanie Oliver (Jane Eyre) confirm this is a film over a piece of theatre. Probably one of the most interesting ideas is the horse race staged indoors. As the camera finds its way behind the curtains of the main stage, however, we suddenly realise what dwells behind the exquisite facade.
…a mature performance as Karenina…
Anna’s social death is made clear quite straightforwardly, when she chooses to continue the affair with her lover. Keira Knightely gives a mature performance as Karenina, whose feelings and paranoia drive her almost insane, but after the first half of the film, there is no chemistry between her and Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky. Although Vronsky’s determination to win Anna’s heart is tangible, his desperation when society disapproves of their relationship is never fully visible. The rest of the characters are presented with a pinch of humour but this fades as the film progresses.
The ambition and scope of this screen adaptation of Anna Karenina is impressive. But, somehow among the rapid intercutting between scenes and the swirling of dresses, the emotional richness of a legendary love story has been sacrificed. Nevertheless, Wright’s Anna Karenina is a stylistic achievement and an innovative approach towards a classic novel.