Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Tom Stoppard (screenplay), Leo Tolstoy (novel)
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
Glorious, over-the-top, sweeping period epics are just the kinds of films I live for. When executed successfully, they are resplendent melodramatic affairs filled with enough gravitas and eye-candy to make even the most hardened critic magpie-the-fuck-out on all the magnificence. Such is the case with director Joe Wright’s bold adaptation of Russian literature’s most well known heroine, ANNA KARENINA. Daring, riveting, and refreshingly unique, this is a dark tragic tale into which Wright (with help from screenwriter Tom Stoppard) effuses warmth and lightness.
Similar to the way Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE starts, our curtain opens on 1874’s Imperialist Russia. There’s an effortless, elegant fluidity in which this ballet of sorts begins on a theater stage. Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, who plays the film’s comedic relief to the hilt) has been caught cheating on his long-suffering pregnant wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). In an effort to soothe the marital discord, Oblonsky’s sister Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) convinces her politically powerful husband Karenin (Jude Law) to let her visit them in Moscow. Whilst on the train she encounters Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), who’s meeting her son, the foppish cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) at the station. Sparks fly and the undercurrent of sex appears in the air when Anna meets Vronsky. Oblonsky’s household proves to be a bustling one as his best friend, the overly sensitive Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) pays a visit to share the news he’s going to ask Dolly’s younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) for her hand in marriage. However, Kitty is besotted with ladies man Vronsky. Quel dommage! A heartbroken Levin returns to his countryside estate and throws himself into work. Kitty is also left brokenhearted when her advances are rebuffed by Vronsky – who’s entranced with the very married Anna – at Princess Betsy’s opulent ball. Even though Anna reciprocates Vronsky’s flirtations, she flees for the comforts of St. Petersburg where obsession rules her mind – and that of her suitor’s. Our tortured heroine’s journey takes flight from here on in.
Stylistically speaking, Wright has created a visual masterpiece with this assured and haunting work of art. The forward momentum of the ensemble’s precisely choreographed movements and the staggering array of set pieces transitioning in and out of frame can be dizzying, but also quite delightful. The narrative and direction play like a waltz – a swirling fluidity, building to a climax and then calculated release. Working with frequent collaborators is a boon for Wright. Seamus McGarvey’s sparkling cinematography is as radiant as one of the many diamond necklaces Anna wears. The saturation of color and the scope with which the sequences are photographed recall the work another sweeping Russian epic – DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is elegant and masterful. Jacqueline Durran’s stunning costume design brilliantly informs the narrative – specifically with Anna – and brings her character’s deep rooted emotions to the surface: Anna’s constant feeling of entrapment is laid out with her corsets and veils, and death surrounds her as she wears dead birds in her hair and fur around her neck. And if it’s possible to hijack a film away from its leads, Gleeson and Vikander do a standout job as the story’s true heart. Both give vulnerable and authentic performances and make audiences yearn to see more of them.
While ANNA KARENINA is beautiful and breathtaking, I wish it sustained its appeal. Two-thirds of the way through, Wright abandons his uber-stylized panache and the narrative loses steam when Anna succumbs to the push-pull of her two romantic entanglements. Sadly, it then becomes a fairly conventional melodrama. Perhaps the biggest problem the film suffers from is that there’s absolutely no chemistry between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson. She’s on fire in her role, but he acts as a wet blanket throughout all of their scenes. She has a more vibrant spark with her cuckolded husband, played splendidly by Law (who, in an ironic real life twist from many years ago, cheated on his wife with Sienna Miller, and cheated on her too). I’d also like to take a moment to tell casting directors to stop trying to make “fetch” happen with Taylor-Johnson as he’s just not skilled at adding dimension or playing any nuanced complexities of his roles without looking goofy and awkward.
Despite the visible flaws in this sparkling diamond, this is a big-screen spectacle that ever-so-slightly misses the mark of perfection. God bless Wright for attempting this massive undertaking.
ANNA KARENINA opens in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Boston on November 16. The film opens on November 21 in Seattle, Dallas, Philadelphia, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Portland, San Diego, St. Louis, and Houston. The film opens wider on November 30th.