Let’s face it, Anna Karenina has been done. To death. Leo Tolstoy’s literary classic about love and betrayal in the upper echelons of society has been adapted so many times that there’s nothing new to do with it, which is precisely why it was so promising when visionary director Joe Wright(Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) decided to take it on. Surely, if anyone could put a fresh coat of paint on the worn out story it’d be him, as he’s elevated period pieces beyond their stodgy trappings in the past. To be fair, he accomplishes the goal of making this the most breath-taking version of Anna Karenina you’re likely to ever see, but it can’t escape that Tolstoy’s story was never built for such artifice.
The glamor and decadence of 19th century Russian socialites is captured with stunning, gorgeous detail, set within the confines of a dilapidated old sound stage. But lest one worry that it’s a stagnant, stagey line-reading like Lars von Trier’s Dogville, it’s actually quite the opposite. The set is essentially a living, vibrant thing in and of itself. The sets move fluidly to melt one scene into the next, as characters race about, dressing one another along the way and transforming into someone entirely different. A ripped up letter drifts into a heavy snowfall, while a seemingly innocuous fan becomes the pounding of a stampede of horses. The passion Wright and his ingenious art department put into the look of the film is tremendous, imbuing the film with a boundless energy and imagination that Tolstoy’s story simply isn’t sturdy enough to sustain.
And as the film begins to drag, and Anna’s (Keira Knightley) infidelity becomes more exhausting than engrossing, so too does all that pageantry become more of a distraction. Set in 19th century Russia, Anna is a member of high society, with her boring and passionless husband Alexei (Jude Law) a high-ranking government bureaucrat. A mother to a little boy who loves her dearly, she seems to only find joy when in her son’s presence. A trip to Moscow to help repair the marriage of her philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen), ironically leads to the destruction of her own when she hits it off with the handsome and charismatic soldier Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Feeling true lust and passion for the first time with Vronsky, Anna flaunts her infidelity to the world with damning results. One of Tolstoy’s most glaring observations was the hypocritical effect of adultery for men and women during that time. Whereas Oblonsky suffers no ill-will for his cheating, Anna is ostracized from society and utterly powerless. Alexei won’t divorce her, keeping her in his thrall with the threat of taking their son away from her completely. When she finally does give it all up on the name of love, she’s consumed by jealousy and paranoia that threatens what little happiness she’s found. There’s nothing pure to what she has with Vronsky. For that, you’ll need to look towards the underdeveloped subplot involving the sensitive and homely Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who aches to be with the young and vivacious Kitty (Alicia Vikander). There story is a bit more hopeful, and the actors find more noticeable chemistry than Knightly and Johnson ever have.
Throughout it all, Knightley does her best with a character that isn’t remotely likable, and at least in this version of the story is painted as the victim of her own desires. Her third collaboration with Wright sees her again more stunning than she’s ever looked before. He always seems to know exactly how to film her to accentuate her best features. Clad in the plush, luxuriant costumes of famed designer Jacqueline Durran, she’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off of. But her performance is uneven for the most part. The picture of quiet desperation early on, Knightley oversells Anna’s deterioration into a petty and resentful harpy as her world crumbles. Taylor-Johnson, sporting a ridiculous blond lion’s mane of a haircut, isn’t magnetic enough to be someone worth giving up life and family over. A credit must go to the make-up department for Law’s impressive Russian appearance. He actually fares the best of all, with the exception of maybe Gleeson, as a man who is so used to keeping his emotions in check that it’s become second nature. Even as everything he knew is falling apart around him, he stays cold and distant.
Unfortunately, the film also keeps us at arm’s length with all its bells and whistles. Still, it’s hard not to be enamored by Wright’s ambition, and admire the lengths he’s willing to go to make his Anna Karenina a truly unique adaptation. But Tolstoy’s story, always a drab and ponderous affair, is best left to the printed page and not the world of feature film, no matter how pretty it may be.