Rating: R for some sexuality and violence
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 7, 2012
Directed by: Joe Wright
Stars: 4 out of 5
“Anna Karenina” is a British drama directed by Joe Wright, who has directed other British films such as “Atonement,” “Hanna” and “Pride & Prejudice.” It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for “Anna Karenina,” which is based on the classic Leo Tolstoy novel of the same name. “Anna Karenina” stars Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Jude Law.
This film is set in Czarist Russia during the 1870s. Its central character is Anna Karenina (Keira Knightly), an aristocrat who is married to Karenin (Jude Law), a government official in St. Petersburg. The film opens with Anna arriving at her family home in Moscow, which has been disrupted by the serial infidelity of her brother Olbonsky (Matthew Macfadyen). His wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) has already had enough of his transgressions. This will mirror Anna’s own situation later in the film, although she receives less tolerance than her brother.
Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is Dolly’s sister who rejects a marriage proposal from Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), a painfully earnest man who knows that Dolly is also being pursued by the affluent bachelor Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). However, Vronsky is immediately and passionately smitten by Anna when they meet at a ball. They dance beautifully together, which captures the attention of everyone watching them.
The mutual attraction between Anna and Vronsky is obvious to Dolly, who is incensed at losing Vronsky. Anna remembers her place in society and returns to her loveless marriage in St. Petersburg. Vronsky shows up shortly in St. Petersburg and is willing to marry Anna if she leaves her husband. Anna is initially ambivalent towards Vronksy’s offer due to her insecurities, Russian social norms, and her husband’s indecision regarding his career.
Anna and Vronsky eventually travel to Europe to be together, although they have trouble fitting in. They later return to Russia, where Anna is shunned and isolated from the Russian aristocracy. Anna also becomes increasingly certain that Vronsky has been unfaithful, despite his reassurances to the contrary.
“Anna Karenina” contains many themes, including carnal desire, faith, family, fidelity, jealousy, hypocrisy, and passion. The contrast between the agrarian lifestyle of the peasants and the urban lives of the aristocracy in Czarist Russia is also evident throughout the film. Director Wright does not moralize extensively, allowing the themes to come naturally from the panorama of Russian life during this period. One of the primary messages throughout the film is that one person cannot build their happiness upon another person’s pain.
Most of this film was shot on a single stage in Shepperton Studios, an old theatre outside London. Wright did this intentionally to create an artificial wall between his film and the audience. The result is a film that is staged as a theatrical production, although the strength of this device varies throughout the film. The basic story of “Anna Karenina” will be not come as a surprise to audience members who are already familiar with Tolstoy’s classic novel. This may be why Wright decided to use a theatrical production instead of a traditional approach to the film. The staged scenes are gorgeous and provide an effective backdrop to the story.
Much of this film’s appeal comes from the difficulty in deciding what to think about Anna. She seems to lead the perfect life as a Russian aristocrat, but she wants more in the form of Count Vronsky. Anna’s affair with the young army officer will prove to be a disaster for both of them. She pursues her own passions at any cost, including her place in society and her sanity.
Keira Knightley is outstanding as the anti-heroine in Tolstoy’s novel. Her portrayal shows Anna to be bored with her marriage and distant from her husband, although she loves her son. She is nearly perfect at bouncing between her love for her son, her horror at losing her station in life, and her unbridled passion for Vronsky. Law’s performance shows a bureaucrat who seethes with control and believes his social status is everything. The standout performances of Knightley and Law prevent this new take on a classic story from becoming a flawed experiment.
Taylor-Johnson gives a fine performance as Vronsky, playing him as a selfish cad who nevertheless has feelings for Anna. However, this interpretation makes it difficult for the audience to imagine the strong-willed Anna falling for him. Macfadyen plays his role as Olbonsky broadly, almost as comic relief.
Watch a trailer for “Anna Karenina” here!