Sadly, this newest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic ‘Anna Karenina’ does not even come close to capturing the spirit of the novel, especially in terms of fully conveying the passion and love between, and the ensuing tragedy of, the main characters. Therefore, I will try to review this film having solely in mind the director’s take on the novel, ignoring as much as possible the discrepancies between the novel and the film, otherwise it would be a never-ending task.
Regarding the plot, Joe Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ gives a somewhat accurate overview, covering almost all the main events in the book, though in a rush. We see the main heroine, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), a Russian socialite, who is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government minister, arrive from St. Petersburg to visit her brother ‘Stiva’ (Matthew Macfadyen) and his family, Oblonskys, in Moscow. Karenina’s brother ‘Stiva’ Oblonsky is married to ‘Dolly’ (Kelly Macdonald), who also has a younger sister, Kitty Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander). In the process, Karenina, who also has a a child, falls in love with one of young cavalry officers and an initial suitor to Kitty, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Parallel to this, we also see the story of Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner and an old friend of ‘Stiva’, and his infatuation with Kitty.
The main strength of Joe Wright’s film adaptation lies almost exclusively in its outstanding, almost unique theatrical presentation: the whole film takes places as if it is a play set on a theatre stage. This seemingly unique take on the story (probably recalling ‘Synecdoche, New York’ (2008)) is masterfully accomplished, with excellent montage, great camera-work and magnificent shots. In no way this diminishes the film’s authenticity. On the contrary, in some sense it is even heightened, and the viewer is really transported into the 1874 Imperial Russia. Although such a production may be seen as ‘lazy’ (the crew hardly went on location), it presents a new, fresh vision of shooting a film, which breaks from a traditional, monotone presentation. However, this ‘stage’ production also means that ‘Anna Karenina’ may seem a bit Shakespearian, especially given the costumes, and near-all British cast (with their distinctive British accents).
The main underlying problem of ‘Anna Karenina’ lies in its cast choice. As Joe Wright decided to work almost-exclusively with a British cast, his pool was somewhat limited. Even though Knightley looks too young to play Anna Karenina, who is supposed to be a middle-aged woman, she can just about fit into the role of Karenina due to her good looks and the ability to portray inner strength and dignity with ease. Jude Law is also good in portraying a stern husband, and surprisingly Alicia Vikander, fresh out of a critically-acclaimed film ‘A Royal Affair’ (2012) also gives a decent performance as Kitty.
The true disaster here, arguably, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky. Last time I checked, Vronsky was handsome, manly, noble-looking kind of man. Aaron Taylor-Johnson looks more like an irresponsible and weak child who still belongs on the set of ‘Albert Nobbs’ (2011) as a kitchen-boy, capable only of seducing girl servants, rather than being a handsome, charismatic and mysterious love interest of such an intelligent main heroine as Anna Karenina, who is prepared to sacrifice everything for such a special man. However, this inner confusion as to why Karenina would even look at such a creature only begins to add effect to the passionless and unemotional love affair between the two in ‘Anna Karenina‘. It is only too evident that by casting Keira Knightley, who looks very young, the director had no other option but to find some British actor who looks even younger than she is. A hard task. The fact that Aaron Taylor-Johnson is in real life married to a woman 23 years his senior may have contributed to the director’s final choice (Robert Pattinson was also considered).
The person who really impresses in ‘Anna Karenina’ may be Matthew Macfadyen who plays Karenina’s promiscuous brother ‘Stiva’ Oblonsky. Incidentally Macfadyen also starred as Mr. Darcy alongside Knightley in Pride & Prejudice (2005). Macfadyen gave a real sparkle to ‘Anna Karenina’, making it humorous. With the right physical training and make-up, Macfadyen would have made a better Vronsky than Aaron Taylor-Johnson ever hoped to become. Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, where Macfadyen stars alongside Knightley, really had this emotion, and the chemistry between the two actors were very good there. Joe Wright’s second feature film ‘Atonement’ (2007) also had this great emotional connection between the main characters, this time between Knightley and James McAvoy.
‘Anna Karenina‘ also faults with the script. This is supposed to be an adaptation of a great romantic novel, and Karenina and Vronsky’s passionate love relationship, its development, are central to the book. Yet, in the film, this relationship is not given enough space, and love between the main characters seems almost fake and surely artificial. There should have been much more emotional contact between the pair made, including the full portrayal of this mysterious, deep and intense attraction between the two. ‘Anna Karenina’ did not require the full ‘Gone with Wind’ portrayal of a love triangle, due to constraints of time etc., but it certainly required more than what was eventually produced. Thankfully, the scenes of Lenin and Kitty’s love are there, providing enough emotional input to sustain the whole movie.
Therefore, because of a very confusing and unbelievable chemistry between Karenina and Vronsky in the film, one hardly feels any empathy, let alone sympathy, for Karenina’s troubles and her subsequent nervous breakdown, and in fact, feels great compassion for Karenina’s husband Alexei. In this way, Wright completely re-wrote ‘Anna Karenina’ as in the book it is Anna Karenina who we love so dearly, whose relationship with Vronsky we cherish and whose loss we mourn, and its Karenina’s husband who we see in a dark light.
By focusing so intently on the glamorous representation of the Russian society in the 19th century, the director/scriptwriter has also missed other important details. For example, to induce further dramatisation, Vronsky’s relationship with Kitty should have been made more obvious and clearer. Moreover, it should have been made clear in the film that Vronsky never ‘got over’ such an amazing woman as Karenina, and even tried to commit suicide (the novel’s account of events).
Overall, the film makes a huge impression, but not in the sense that a film of this kind should do. ‘Anna Karenina’ impresses greatly with visuals, stunningly-choreographed shots and scenes, and beautiful costume designs and settings, contributing to its unique presentation. The film also tries to portray a passionate, emotional, dramatic, tragic love affair which ‘rocked a nation’ – I just did not believe a moment of it. 6/10
P.S. Talking about Vronsky, someone similar to Ioan Gruffudd or Hugh Jackman would have seriously been better in that role (if only they were a bit younger!):