Film Review | Anna Karenina

Director Joe Wright teams up with Keira Knightley for the third time, and injects a dose of energy to this austere Russian classic.

Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina is undone by her love for a young cavalry officer in this new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s perennial infidelity drama.
Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina is undone by her love for a young cavalry officer in this new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s perennial infidelity drama.

Film adaptations of Anna Karenina are almost as old as cinema itself - with a silent film of Leo Tolstoy's doorstopper novel appearing as early as 1914.

So what does director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Creation) bring to the table when he goes about directing yet another take on the familiar story of infidelity and social ostracism in imperial Russia?

Well, with the help of his favourite leading lady (frequent collaborator Keira Knightley) and a masterfully taut script - considering the original novel's size and panoramic sweep - by decorated playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), he's decided to take on this particular challenge by going all Baz Luhrmann on it. 

Yes, this is Anna Karenina ala Moulin Rouge, and it turns out to be a clever aesthetic choice - lending spirit and colour to a tale that can easily come across as ponderous and drab in the hands of a less dynamic director.

And like Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, Wright's film is a bold piece of theatre... literally. Somewhat jarringly at first, we're introduced to the lush, bustling world of 19th century Russia's blue-bloods as if we were watching a play, with a curtain lifting up on a stage to reveal how the household of Stepan 'Stiva' Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) threatens to fall into disarray after his romp with a governess is discovered by his faithful wife Darya 'Dolly' Alexandrovna (Kelly Macdonald).

Stiva summons his sister - the charming Anna Karenina (Knightley), wife of the austere and highly respected government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) - to placate his wife and hopefully convince her to forgive him.

On her way from St Petersburg, Anna encounters a handsome young cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the two instantly fall in love. Despite Anna's marriage and Vronsky's courtship of the young debutante Katerina 'Kitty' Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), their connection is too strong to ignore... and as the pair finally succumb to their impulses, their initial bliss gives way to disastrous consequences for all involved.

Serving as a more hopeful foil to the tragic fate of Anna Karenina, a parallel storyline concerns the young, socially aware aristocrat Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), his growing awareness of the failings on the Russian upper classes and his attempts to woo Kitty.

Though the 'film as theatre production' trope takes some getting used to for the first few scenes, it's actually the perfect way to led some vim to this sweeping romantic epic.

Characters bolt out of stage doors to instantly transport themselves to a different landscape, extras take charge of the practicalities of scene changes right before our eyes, crowd scenes are freeze-framed to emphasise either moments of romance or social humiliation.

While it may be a style essentially borrowed from Luhrmann, it lends a much needed dose of attitude, not to mention giving license for a bolder colour palette (and some truly beautiful, postcard-friendly tableaux) that would doubtlessly have been suppressed in a more 'realistic' production.

The frills certainly help our lead appear dynamic, when really, Knightley is just riffing off her back catalogue. 

Even her turn as the more tortured Karenina in the latter half is just a re-hash of her hysterical character from A Dangerous Method.

But thanks to the costume and make-up departments, she certainly looks the part - channelling the many social and emotional shifts this enduring character goes through throughout the course of the chunky film (it's not interminable, though it's as long as The Dark Knight Rises).

From glamorous socialite to oft-near-naked love-struck mistress to disturbed and fading Pre-Raphaelite waif, Knightley is at least willing and able to transform herself into a blank canvas for the bold strokes of this colourful, spirited production to thrive in.

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