Anna Karenina, the latest film version of the ponderous and tragic Russion novel by Leo Tolstoy, fails to capture the weighty morality plays and tragic depths of its source material. The true crime is not that it wasn’t a straight adaptation of the novel, but that it had a decidely flippant spirit and high style without the substance to back it up. All glitter and no gold.
I don’t think anyone would argue that playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) and director Joe Wright (Atonement) have created a visually stunning film. It’s got all the bells and whistles; eccentric and lavish period costumes, intriguing sets and back drops. It also presents an innovative (if eventually tedious) “all life’s a stage and we but actors…” theme, and weaves it throughout the movie by using a grand old theater and stage as the backdrop/opening to numerous scenes.
Unfortunately, gorgeous set pieces aren’t enough to make a movie work. There has to be some substance beneath the glitz and glamour. What this version of Anna Karenina provides, besides the visuals, is a tired collage of the seminal moments of Anna karenina that audiences have seen and heard in every other movie version out there. Even the dialogue (and one might expect more from Stoppard) was unoriginal and re-hashed.
I understand that this is a film based on the novel, but if movemakers had wanted to keep things fresh (which they were evidently trying very hard to do with the non-traditional staging and flippant “theatrical” atmosphere), then they should have perhaps taken scenes from the book that weren’t generally used by every book-to-screen writer out there. Or they could have “interpreted” the book wildly (again, which would be in keeping with the highly stylized look and feel of the film), and give the old story a new and bold twist.
Unfortunately, we have a glitzy presentation of tired material, which not only feels unbalanced, but wasteful. Keira Knightly played the titular character with bizarre giddyness. Her girlish portrayal of the tragic figure cheapened the entire film until it felt like glittery melodrama. She wasn’t alone in being miscast though, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Count Vronsky was so pretty and foppish, I could more easily picture him playing a glittering vampire in Twilight.
Jude Law was ray of sunshine in the acting arena, as his Karenin was as officious as one would hope from such a character. The type you love to hate, and one who presented the mutli-faceted character brought to life in Tolstoy’s novel.
Tolstoy’s novel is one in which people are searching for purpose and meaning in life, and where morality is studied from many different angles. That provokes not only thought, but mutli-layered characters that aren’t easily judged as good or bad. Very little of these grander themes are presented in Anna Karenina, and the few scenes that do deal with the subtleties of philosophical musings/discoveries are some of the best (unfortunately, these are few).
All in all, this is a showy period drama with lots of style but little substance. If you’re not into substance, then you might really enjoy this. Fans of the book may find it disappointing, though, as Tolstoy’s story was not given new life in this version of Anna Karenina but instead a shiny new venue.