Anna Karenina, the literary work of art written by Leo Tolstoy in the 1870s, was first published in serialized installments in a Russian periodical. Regarded as a high point in fiction even at that time, Tolstoy clashed with his editor multiple times over the political tone of the tome. Now, a century and a half later, it strikes me as funny that its latest adaptation for the screen has cast the story to be little more than a romantic drama about love gone wrong.
In director Joe Wright’s latest collaboration with star Keira Knightley (see also 2005’s Pride & Prejudice and the Oscar nominee Atonement), Knightley has been cast as the titular character, the aristocratic wife of a senior statesman in 19th century Russia. While traveling alone via train to visit her brother and attempt to mend his marriage, she meets a Countess known for her many affairs. While discussing her reputation, Anna finds herself titillated. At that moment the train pulls into the station, where the Countess’ son, Count Vronksy, welcomes the two. There is an instant attraction between Anna and Vronksky, one which Anna attempts to run away from at first.
After visiting with her philandering brother, she attends a ball being attended by the Count. Their attraction for one another quickly becomes obvious to all attending, as they dance around the room as if no one is watching. Anna, telling herself this is as far as the flirtation will go, sends the Count away.
Well, it’s no time at all before they are getting it on in beautifully shot meadows and sneaking away for all day trysts in Anna’s own house while her husband is away. Soon Anna finds herself expecting, and must deal with the ramifications of her recent decisions.
I must admit, before watching this film I wasn’t very knowledgeable of the story of Anna Karenina. Don’t get me wrong, I knew its history, but could tell you nothing about the actual narrative of the piece of literature. If you had asked me to sum the story up three weeks ago, I would have probably grasped at straws and said, “Is it something like War and Peace?”
As mentioned above, screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who owns a filmography that is almost flawless, has condensed the legendary tale down to the 19th century version of a Lifetime movie. Anna comes across on the screen as a petulant child, married to an older man who loves her, but unable to turn away from the Count even as the affair destroys her world. Sure, sure, I can hear people saying that it is a realistic portrayal of a woman in love.
I didn’t buy it in Reality Bites, and I don’t buy it now.
Joe Wright has a tendency to capture Knightley in beautiful poses, but hasn’t been able to pull a great performance out of her yet. The streak continues here, as Wright seems content in staging scenes that resemble the actress’ work in Chanel ads. The actress is blown off the screen by her costars, and one of the finest ensembles of supporting actors to be found on the screen this year.
Among the many who give career performances, Matthew Macfadyen is most notable. Macfadyen, a character actor perhaps best known as playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in that terrible Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie from a couple of years ago, takes control of the screen anytime he pops up. As Anna’s brother, Stiva, Macfadyen’s portrayal and body language bring to mind a young Kevin Kline. A rogue that we are to look down on, Macfadyen brings a humor that is sorely lacking from the rest of the 130 minute runtime.
While it may sound as if I didn’t care for the film, I wouldn’t go that far. The movie is creatively staged, and the set design and costumes are beautiful. The film has some truly great performances sprinkled around the edges, and I would recommend anyone catch it in theaters to truly appreciate the epic before Oscar season (where it is sure to be nominated for multiple awards).
On the whole, however, I feel that this Anna Karenina is a missed opportunity. Perhaps Wright and Knightley have just worked together too many times at this point and feel too comfortable around each other. Maybe with a different actress, the true pathos of the character would have sprung from the screen. As it is, we are given the rare film that is a beauty, features great acting, but ultimately falls short in the end.