This highly anticipated film, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s Russian novel (first published in 1877), follows director Joe Wright’s widely acclaimed Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. While it is a sumptuous, colourful feast for the eyes, the film is not only disappointing coming from Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, it also lacks character and becomes overambitious and unsatisfying.
Wright and Stoppard have clearly over-extended themselves in this most recent adaptation. Instead of staying safely in the typical costume drama genre, they have dunked their toes in the theatrical genre as well. The film is set within one theatre stage for the first half. Every time the actor walks off stage, they then come back via the wings and the set has been changed before our eyes. They also utilize the area above the stage to represent the separation between the Russian high society and the commonfolk, gypsies and serfs. The highly choreographed dance scenes are artfully graceful and do add a certain beauty.
Whilst bizarrely clever, with synchronised set and costume changes, it is also dizzyingly rushed, so the detail is glossed over and almost missed. It sets a momentum that is steadily lost over the course of the film. The fast paced, syncopated rhythm of the film at the beginning is intriguing and makes you want to see more. It is reminiscent of the typewriter that sets the flurrying pace in Atonement. But unfortunately it loses its way and dissolves into an agonisingly slow second half. The method is very unconventional and very promising, but here it unfortunately becomes an obvious Oscar grab.
The heart of the film should have been the characters; however, most (though not all) are one-dimensional. Keira Knightley is usually a safe bet in historical costume dramas, but she is grating and empty. Her character is known to be selfish, destroying her marriage for her own carnal desires with Count Vronsky (played by baby faced Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But Knightley does not deliver in showing us exactly why her husband and Vronsky fell for her and love her with such loyalty. She and Taylor-Johnson share zero on-screen chemistry, not even a titbit.
Funnily enough the only compelling characters are those in the side narrative, starring two relatively unknown actors, Alicia Vikander as Princess Kitty and Domhall Gleeson as her love Konstantin Levin. Jude Law playing Alexei Karenin is the best actor of all, as Anna’s religious, self-disciplined husband. He is almost unrecognisable in this role. Matthew Macfadyen plays Anna’s comical brother Stiva. He may have been trying to show his flexibility, but Macfadyen becomes a buffoon of a character that I half expected to break into song and dance. Ruth Wilson as Princess Betsy is equally comical and vapid, both in appearance and in her annoying high-pitched voice.
The real show stopper, however, and the film’s only redeeming quality, is Jacqueline Durran’s costuming. The entire film is a colourful feast for the eyes with rich fabrics draped on the skinny bodices of Knightley, Wilson and the female cast members. The hues and material look like something out of a Dior Haute Couture photo shoot and Knightly wears only shimmering Chanel jewellery. Period drama costuming is always magnificent, but the costuming in Anna Karenina is leagues ahead and wholly takes advantage of 19th century Russian fashion with billowing skirts and fur hats.
Anna Karenina is ambitious; that is obvious. It has a promising start, beautiful costuming and cinematography. But it very quickly becomes an unsatisfying film that tried to hold much too high a standard. The mish-mash of theatre tricks with film weren’t executed well, despite how clever Wright’s and Stoppard’s vision may have been. The acting was forgettable and robotic and the dialogue was terribly thin for an adaptation from a literary work. Unfortunately a great adaptation was lost in the weight of its production. Very disappointed, Mr Wright.