Movie Review: Anna Karenina
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Director Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a work of art — technically brilliant, lavishly filmed and visually stunning. It’s the most theatrical film of the year and a bold re-imagining of the novel. It’s Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” on steroids, without the musical numbers. It is not, however, the most accessible of movies.
People who have not read the novel by Leo Tolstoy will probably be confused during the first 10 minutes of “Anna Karenina,” as multiple secondary characters strut across the stage. It takes time to realize that the initial hubbub surrounds an extramarital affair by Stepan Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), who has asked his sister Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) to come to Moscow to help calm down his very irritated wife.
To make matters more murky, a subplot is quickly introduced. It involves a country squire named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who has romantic notions involving one of Oblonsky’s daughters, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). The subplot, which figures prominently in the novel’s themes, has been given short shrift in earlier film adaptations, but it’s a wise move to include it here. Levin’s ideals of honor and God offer a necessary counterbalance to the romantic mistakes and social defiance that Anna eventually embraces.
In that regard, the adapted screenplay by Tom Stoppard emphasizes the different attitudes toward extramarital affairs in Russian society in the late 19th century. Romantic dalliances ares allowed for men, who suffer little or no loss in social status. But it’s not acceptable for women.
That becomes particularly important for Anna, who has a child with her reserved, much older husband Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) back in St. Petersburg. When she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) upon her arrival in Moscow, she initially resists his considerable charms. But there’s little doubt as to where this story is headed.
As Anna, Knightley reins in some of her more unfortunate overacting tendencies that were so apparent in 2011’s “A Dangerous Method.” But she still doesn’t manage to capture the essence of Tolstoy’s Anna. In the movie, she’s exquisitely coiffed, almost like a doll. But she doesn’t have the full, earthy passions of Tolstoy’s Anna. Part of that has to do with the artificiality of the movie’s staging. And part of it simply has to do with Knightley’s acting choices.
Still, the artificiality of this new “Anna Karenina” offers much to admire. The director creates breathtaking scenes, with highly stylized moments literally fading away as a door opens into the wintry, real world. And a horse race that begins on stage then goes to the countryside and eventually ends up back on stage. It’s sheer visual wizardry. And then there are the elaborate dances — perfectly choregraphed set pieces that reveal the characters’ emotions.
Wright, whose previous directing efforts include the critically praised “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice,” is clearly comfortable with costume dramas. With “Anna Karenina,” however, he enters more stylized territory. Some might find it emotionally distant, and that’s a valid observation. But “Anna Karenina” is gorgeous to watch. It’s bound to rack up multiple Oscar nominations, especially in the technical categories — and it should.