Anna Karenina, one of many film adaptations of the Leo Tolstoy novel of the same name, tells the story of an affair that tears the lives of those involved apart. In late 19th century Russia, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is a content aristocrat married to the stuffy, yet kind statesman Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). Anna lives a happy and sensible life and has an especially close relationship with her only son. While in Moscow visiting her brother, Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen), she meets the young, handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Vronsky is thought to soon be engaged to the young and beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander), but shocks everyone when he dances all night with Anna instead of Kitty at a ball. An affair between Anna and Vronsky ensues. This story is paralleled with the story of Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a young country landowner who is in pursuit of a marriage to Kitty and finding the key to a life of happiness.
With direction by Joe Wright, it’s no surprise that Anna Karenina boasts stunning visuals and impressive, sweeping long takes (those who appreciated the beauty of Wright’s Atonement and Pride and Prejudice will not be disappointed). The sets and costumes are rich with color and decadence.
Stylistically, the film is daring. Wright made a choice to have much of the action in the film take place on a theatrical stage, giving the audience the feeling of watching a stage play onscreen. For example, a scene will look like it is occurring in a proper film set until the camera pulls back and reveals the edge of the stage and footlights. At first, this tactic is distracting. It pulls the audience out of the narrative. However, after getting acquainted with the technique, in combination with an excellent score by Dario Marianelli, the entire film weaves together elegantly. This technique offers many opportunities for cinematic eye candy; for example there is an elaborate single swirling shot, which captures a change in setting from one scene to the next. Instead of a cut to the next scene, the audience witnesses set backdrops and props being rearranged around the characters. The extras in these sequences act like the chorus in a play, moving things around for the next scene or assisting the major characters in costume changes, all the while gliding across the screen in choreographed unison.
Wright also utilizes an interesting technique of having the extras and minor characters frozen in motion onscreen while the main characters remain moving, an elegant approach to dramatic scenes. Taking into account the great number of adaptations there have been of Anna Karenina to the screen and stage, it’s clear that part of the motivation for Wright’s use of the stage play setting and overall dramatic stylization is to set his film apart from the multitude of other stuffy adaptations.
While this film is visually spectacular and full of excellent performances (Knightley and Law in particular), there is an essential lack of a cohesive message for the film. Anna’s story of giving up stability, friendships, and her son for love feels like a mistake for her from the very beginning. I found myself wishing she wouldn’t choose the path of romantic love and would instead choose her son and her life that she’d built with her husband. Maybe I’m unromantic; or maybe Taylor-Johnson’s Count Vronsky was not believable as a man worth giving all of those things up for, but I wanted Anna to choose to keep her family intact. Somehow, her motivation to betray her old life is not compelling enough in the film. In fact, her character rapidly changes from a reasonable, respectable woman who gives advice on happy matrimony, to a woman who gives up her life for love.
The parallel love story in the film of Konstantine’s initially unrequited love for Kitty sends a much different message on love. Konstantine is a lover of simplicity in life; he rejects the fanciful ways of high society in Moscow even though his rank and wealth would allow him to be a part of it. He and Kitty find a way to share a simple and beautiful love that is not exceptionally passionate, but giving and true. I found there to be more heart in their delicately told story than in the story of Anna and Vronsky.
Though a bit muddled in its message, the film indeed successfully portrays many types of love stories through an innovative lens of style. One thing is certain: Wright beautifully captures the romance of this lovely and lavish time in Russia while setting Anna Karenina apart stylistically from stuffy period dramas.