Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky
Jude Law as Alexei Karenin
Kelly Macdonald as Dolly
Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky
Domhnall Gleeson as Levin
Alicia Vikander as Kitty
Ruth Wilson as Princess Betsy
Emily Watson as Countess Lydia
Michelle Dockery as Princess Myagkaya
Olivia Williams as Countess Vronskaya
Holliday Grainger as The Baroness
Shirley Henderson as Mme Kartasov
Thomas Howes as Yashvin
Bill Skarsgård as Captain Machouten
Alexandra Roach as Countess Nordston
Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Burisov
Raphaël Personnaz as Alexander
David Wilmot as Nikolai Levin
Hera Hilmar as Varya
Luke Newberry as Vasily Lukich
Tannishtha Chatterjee as Masha
Emerald Fennell as Princess Merkalova
Buffy Davis as Agafia
Max Bennett as Petritsky
Guro Nagelhus Schia as Annushka
Nicholas Blatt as Major Domo
Directed by Joe Wright
In 19th Century Russia, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the wife of a St. Petersburg diplomat, travels to Moscow to help the marriage of her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Once there, she gets the attention of the younger military man, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and their passion leads to an affair, putting her husband (Jude Law) into a difficult position and gets her shunned from polite society. Poor Anna.
There are certain novels that probably should never be adapted again and now leading that list is Leo Tolstoy’s classic piece of literature, which has already had its share of adaptations. “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” director Joe Wright guarantees no one will ever want to tackle another movie version again, since he’s not only created a substantially ambitious version but also because his movie makes it painfully obvious the source material probably never warranted the number of adaptations done so far.
Certainly one can understand why there may be hope the filmmaker who made Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” into a terrific movie beyond the source material could do the same for Tolstoy’s tome, especially by reuniting with that film’s star Keira Knightley, but from the opening credits, it’s abundantly obvious Wright has decided to create his own personal “Moulin Rouge!” with the material, setting the film’s opening on a large soundstage dressed up with moving backdrops.
So many characters are introduced within the first ten minutes of the movie it may be impossible for anyone unfamiliar with the book to understand the relationships, not helped by the hyper-stylized performances, particularly from Matthew MacFadyen who plays Anna’s philandering brother constantly involving himself in other’s love lives. Knightley plays the title character, of course, arriving into the madness that is Moscow to a grisly accident, yet she somehow gets through her shock to enchant Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Count Vronsky, a handsome military man who previously held the interest of her younger acquaintance Kitty. When Anna heads home to St. Petersburg, her passionate chemistry with Vronsky turns into a full-blown affair that angers her husband (Jude Law) who refuses to divorce her, knowing the effect it will have on their image.
The Moscow section of the movie is filled with plenty of “wow!” moments with long tracking shots and elaborate stagings, dancers and musicians walking through every scene and the setting changing around the actors. After a particularly impressive shot of Donhal Gleeson’s mopey Levin, Kitty’s former suitor who feels he’s lost her to Vronsky, walking toward the back of the stage before doors slide open and he exits into the snow as he heads back to St. Petersburg, it feels like Wright has shot his load as the film settles into a more subdued style of filmmaking.
Every scene is filled with color and glamour due to the stunning work by Wright’s art department and suitable levels of passion are provided by composer Dario Marianelli’s score, but with characters popping in and out saying often random things, it’s hard not to feel like you’re watching a perfume commercial. The music, which plays such a big part in setting the tone of the first half, nearly disappears entirely in the second half.
The biggest issue with “Anna Karenina” is that the title character isn’t particularly likable or sympathetic, maybe because Knightley’s version is all over the place in terms of her feelings, running hot and cold on both her husband and lover – both conveniently and confusingly named “Alexei.” Knightley gives a performance that has her deliriously happy one moment then in tears the next, but there’s only so much of these histrionics one starts hoping for Anna to meet a similar fate as the victim of the earlier accident. By the time she’s shunned from society both in St. Petersburg and Moscow for her actions, we can’t exactly feel sorry for her either.
Jude Law plays the spurned husband Karenin with a steely, cold resolve, constantly cracking his knuckles to get his point across, and as menacing as that may seem, he’s one of the few characters you can actually sympathize with since he’s constantly showing love and patience with a wife who continually makes a fool of him. Taylor-Johnson’s performance is generally decent maybe because he plays Vronsky more subdued than others around him, but the sadsack Levin seems to serve very little purpose except that when you finally return to his wooing of Kitty, it’s a welcome relief from Anna and her insufferable indecision. Unfortunately, we’re right back to her love triangle and her on and off again relationship with Vronsky, which was already tiring before we’re forced to endure 45 minutes more of it.
Some of the film’s pacing problems and the questionable actions by the characters probably could be traced back to the original source material, though that last hour is a grueling chore to get through and by the time it reaches its resolution–which we won’t spoil for those who have decided this movie will be their entrance into Tolstoy’s work–it feels like you’ve been bludgeoned repeatedly by a copy of that 864-page book.
The Bottom Line:
Like an overly long perfume commercial, “Anna Karenina” aka “the new fragrance from Joe Wright,” is as stylishly extravagant as it is dull and pretentious.