Yes, I know. Keira Knightley period dramas based on classic novels are getting a little old hat, but I was still looking forward to this due to the director involved. You see, this is made by Joe Wright, who made the surprisingly excellent PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and Oscar-Nominee ATONEMENT. I was disappointed with THE SOLOIST, and embarrassed to say that I haven’t seen HANNA yet, which many of my friends told me they loved. The dude is talented, and I was excited to see how he would make Tolstoy’s novel come to life.
There has already been quite a few adaptations of ANNA KARENINA (I’ve only previously seen the 1997 version), so the story is known pretty well by the general public, I think. Taking place in 19th Century Russia, it centers around a married woman named Anna who has an affair with Count Vronsky and the effects it has on her marriage. There’s also a mostly unrelated subplot about a guy named Konstantin who is in love with a young lady named Kitty. It sort of interweaves with the main story.
What makes this version different from others that came before it is a certain gimmick. It’s shot like a stage play. Now, when I mean “shot like a stage play”, I don’t mean that the camera is static while people recite their lines on a stage. The camera is all over the place, but on the stage moving around with the actors. I thought this was really neat. Over half of the movie is set in a theater, while the actors play out scenes on a stage with several different scenery changes. In fact, sometimes the characters leave one location, then walk 3 feet, and are suddenly in a different location (while the stage hands change the backdrops). I know it’s a gimmick, but I found it to be an entertainingly ambitious one.
However, I wasn’t really involved all that much with the central story. Now, it can very well be that I just don’t care for Tolstoy’s story. Anna isn’t very likable, as she comes across like a spoiled rich snob. Her husband is kind of a jerk too, so I didn’t really want to side with either one. And Count Vronsky I found to be a bit bland. Ironically, I found the secondary story with Konstantin and Kitty much more compelling. I wished the story was about them. I found some chemistry between those two characters. I really wanted them to be together. But every time the story was focused on Anna, I lost interest. Now, I was never bored and the film is never awful, I just wasn’t fully engaged. But again, I sure loved the theater-style approach. Unfortunately, they kind of get rid of that gimmick somewhere around the halfway point, as the film moves to real locations. I thought that if you introduce a gimmick, you should follow through and stick with it the whole time. Just sayin’.
The acting is mostly decent by everyone. Keira Knightley could play Anna in her sleep. She just seems so comfortable in these types of period piece roles. She’s solid here, though it’s not her most memorable work. I actually think she gave a better performance in the already forgotten about SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD. Jude Law is also fine as Anna’s husband, I just thought his character wasn’t fully realized. Aaron Johnson didn’t impress me as the count. His stiff portrayal just rubbed me the wrong way. I did very much like Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander as Konstantin and Kitty. But the best performance belongs to Matthew Macfayden as Anna’s brother (I think). He injects the film with a much-needed shot of energy. His boisterous performance is a refreshing change of pace from the stuffy performances we come to expect from a period drama.
Joe Wright is certainly a talent to behold. His approach here was an inspired one. As usual, he uses a lot of long, unbroken steadicam shots, and with the use of the stage gimmick, it definitely has as sort of “WOW” factor going for it. The script seems to be fine, but I just think it’s the story that I don’t really care for too much. I just couldn’t get into any of the central characters, which is too bad because the movie looks absolutely gorgeous with its wonderfully detailed sets and luscious costume design.
Fans of the novel might be able to love this movie if they embrace the gimmick. This was an interesting experiment, but didn’t work for me since I’m not a fan of the story. If you just want to see some lush visuals, you can do worse, but unfortunately director Joe Wright fails to bring anything new to the story. I admire the film’s ambition, but I can’t fully recommend it. Sorry. I need some characters that I can care about. But it is almost worth seeing for the film’s unique style. ★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for some sexuality and violence.
– Running time: 2hrs. 9min.