Review: Beautiful, Bold ‘Anna Karenina’ Breaks Under the Weight of Its Own Ambition

By  · Published on November 16th, 2012

Director Joe Wright’s latest film, a lush and visually striking adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is uniquely suited to the filmmaker’s tastes and tones. Joining his other love-struck and leading lady-centric films like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Wright again adapts well-tread material with an eye for emotion, dizzying and overwrought as it may be (or truly, as it can be). Utilizing a “theater-set” concept to frame up his film, Wright’s Anna Karenina offers up his most original film yet, but one that still fails to ultimately come together and connect with his audience.

Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted countless times before and in a variety of mediums. While not a complicated story, the trials and tribulations of the young Mrs. Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) are still ripe for discussion and dissection, and Wright’s choice to keep the film in the book’s period setting does nothing to diminish its aching relatability. A dazzling society maven, Anna’s life centers on her husband (the beloved politician Alexei Karenin, Jude Law, whom she seems to simply admire, not adore), parties, and her young son. Mildly upended by the news of her brother’s (Matthew Macfadyen) cheating ways, Anna sets off to visit the broken family in Moscow and to help mend some long-simmering wounds. Upon her arrival in Moscow, she meets the dashing (sure) Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the pair eventually fall into an all-consuming affair that threatens to destroy every element of Anna’s life.

That’s the short version, though Tolstoy’s novel is sprawling, dense, and rife with other subplots. While Wright’s film also adapts a few other elements of the novel (mainly a secondary love story involving her brother’s dear friend Levin and his sister-in-law Kitty), the heart of it swirls around Anna, Vronsky, and their terribly ill-fated obsession with each other. It is, however, most unfortunate that Knightley and Taylor-Johnson have zero chemistry and Taylor-Johnson is crushingly unable to tap into any of the count’s appeal (sexual or emotional). Anna Karenina is, above all things, a love story – and a love story without bright, burning chemistry is not a love story at all. Anna’s beauty and charm are obvious (Knightley does particularly well by her role), so it’s certainly not hard to imagine that many men would fall at her feet, but of those potential side suitors, it’s insanity that Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky would somehow prove to be the best one. All that undeniable desire? That burning lust? The sense that Anna and Vronsky cannot exist without each other? With the role of Vronsky in Taylor-Johnson’s still-unproven hands, the romance is barely believable, occasionally even laughable.

Yet, despite Wright’s casting missteps, the director does make some brave decisions that often pan out. Wright’s treatment of the material is certainly ambitious (perhaps the watchword of 2012 cinema, in the wake of other ambitious films that premiered to mixed results, such as Cloud Atlas and even The Master to some extent) – the director decided to set the material in a theater. It was a bold choice, but though Anna Karenina is originally a novel, Leo Tolstoy’s work has been turned into countless stage adaptations over the years. Of course Anna Karenina can be performed in the theater. But can it be performed in a “screen-theater” and still deliver?

We’ll never know.

Wright’s vision for the film, though bold and, again, ambitious, was actually quite last minute – it was a concept he cooked up just three months before production was set to begin (to add to the inherent stress of such an endeavor, there was no extra budget to accommodate the changes). While the film holds tightly to its vision for the first half, Wright eventually abandons it to open up his story and characters to a wider, outside world, one that is less lush and moving and stunning than his theater-set universe. This is an unmitigated mistake after the satisfying spectacle of the film’s first hour. While Wright’s decision to set the bulk of the Levin-centric scenes outside the theater is an understandable one, but one that comes with significantly less impact when impinged on by other characters. Levin does move through the theater (and often). Other characters go to Levin’s home (and often). But it’s not just Levin’s world that breaks from Wright’s gorgeous and creative constrictions – Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin all do, too – and to no satisfying end. Wright’s moves are simply too clear and too obvious, and frankly, they’re distracting and disheartening after we we’ve spent so much time getting used to his theatrical set-up.

Screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s script is a tight and economical take on vast material, one that adeptly reappropriates certain elements to better serve Wright’s particular themes. The Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) romance, for instance, is far more complicated and tortured within Tolstoy’s tome, but Stoppard and Wright’s take focuses more on the affection between the pair, presenting a love story about two people who are supposed to be together and who also happen to be better when they are together (whereas Anna isn’t her best self with either Karenin or Vronsky). Unfortunately, the work that the entire cast and crew put into Levin and Kitty’s story is so far superior to the flimsy sparks between Anna and Vronsky that it leaves us wanting the worst thing we could want from an Anna Karenina adaptation – less Anna.

The Upside: Gorgeous, lush, and bold, Anna Karenina is a true feast for the eyes from its settings to its costumes and jewelry; Knightley and Law both turn in surprisingly sympathetic performances; Gleeson and Vikander carve out one of the best romantic storylines of the year; Stoppard’s well-made script; Wright’s attempt to do something (anything) new.

The Downside: Wright’s seemingly abandoned vision for a truly “theatrical” film; Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s terrible (and terribly distracting) performance; crucial lack of chemistry between Taylor-Johnson and Knightley.

On the Side: You can read up more about Wright’s concept and the unique challenges it presented in this article from The Guardian.