I have made every intention to stay away from spoilers, but I have alluded to several things throughout, which may give things away.
Joe Wright and Keira Knightly reunite for their third period drama together, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel, Anna Karenina. The pair have shown their hand at Austen (2005’s Pride & Prejudice) and McEwan (2007’s Atonement) but this time they return to the big screen with a much bigger novel, something much deeper and much grittier on their hands and so therefore, after their first two attempts, I was pretty excited for the third. Pride & Prejudice and Atonement were at their hearts, love stories set across distance, privilege and society and on the can, Anna Karenina, was going to be the same – although the novel deals with much harder hitting themes including society, jealousy, progress and the relationship between those with the city and those with the land but I was most certainly intrigued as to quite how much Wright was going to cover within this latest adaptation.
For those unaware of the story, Anna (a stunning Keira Knightly) is a married woman. She lives a somewhat claustrophobic and unloving life with her husband, Alexei Karenin (a unrecognisable Jude Law) but when she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (a miscast Aaron Johnson), everything changes and she leaves behind her the constraints set upon marriage by society to start an extra-marrital affair with Vronsky. She thinks that she is leaving behind her boring life of unhappiness, but simply finds herself consumed by the new, more complicated life instead where society looks upon her like a whore and gradually people drift away from her. Running parallel to the story is that of Kitty (Alicia Vikander) who was once meant to marry Vronsky but instead ends up with Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).
The films opens with stunning red curtains in a glorious theatre, somewhat reminiscent to the work of Baz Luhrman (particularly Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge) and almost instantly the audience is introduced into this world of imperial Russia but we always made aware that it is under the guise of the theatre. This technique almost keeps the audience at a distance from the action of the film, which I believe forebodes the sorrowful ending, we are always watching the action of the film within the proscenium arch of the theatre (although not literally, we do go under the arch and visit locations, which take up the entire screen but we constantly revisit this theme of the theatre). Furthermore, I believe this allusion leads us to consider how one must act within society – how we are all constrained by those around us, the laws that we have to abide and the things that people expect from us. This theme of acting, is something, which Anna Karenina, plays upon consistently through her complete and utter disillusion with those rules.
There are moments when the theatre technique becomes a little repetitive and it did lead me to question why it was used so much, and to what affect it would have on the film but it may simply be a stylistic flair, which made the film feel whole – it certainly doesn’t detract.
As I write this review, I am trying to calculate the perfect order to write about everything in the film – so please bear in mind if it sounds a little jumbled, I will try to keep to some sort of structure.
Anna Karenina was always going to be a costume drama piece, and it massively succeeds in that respect – from the set decoration, to the representation of the Russian arts from the 1800s to the costumes themselves, the colour of the film sparkles quite literally. In particular the dresses that Keira Knightly wears throughout the film are visually stunning and something quite spectacular in their own right – the costume designer, Jacqueline Durran has done an outstanding job. Furthermore, the production design is quite fitting to the piece, where moments of happiness shine through, as does the lighting emphasis the sheer colours of everything included in the set. In particular, both of the major ball sequences in Anna Karenina, illustrate the use of lighting – the colours and extreme lights create a fantasy world, something unlike our own and this further fits within the theatre world that Wright has tried to create. There are moments when the action freezes and we enter the mind of Anna, it is wonderful to see a film like this having these moments on anti-realism, where the audience is learning so much more through the set and the characters, returning to the narrative to find out more. During the first dance between Anna and Vronsky, all the dancers disappear and a spotlight shines upon the tragic couple. Knightly is wearing all black, which signifies her the somewhat darker, more tempted route she will ultimately follow whereas Vronsky wears white, illustrating his innocence and naivety to the world he gets entangled within. Both shine in this scene, and the dance continues on.
Casting wise, Knightly is wonderful as Karenina. She continues to play the pouty, dainty woman but from film to film, the women that she plays grow in strength, and even (if you permit me the pleasure), she has a slight tinge of Greta Garbo (who herself played Karenina) about herself where she can illustrate everything she is thinking through her eyes and her mouth – rather than having to say everything. She is the perfect example of fetishistic scopophilia, as theorised by Laura Mulvey. Parts of Knightly’s face becomes so entranced with emotions, that the audience concentrates solely on her lips, her eyes, her cheeks and they represent the rest of her body. Jude Law plays an interesting role within the film because we are so busy concentrating on the growing relationship of Anna and Vronsky, that we don’t really take the time to notice the angst and fire growing within her husband, Alexei. He tries, at first to forgive her, her misgivings but as she continues to pull away, he continues to fight until the end and Law is a constant reminder of this throughout the film. The reminder of the cast is filled with recognisable faces (many of whom fill me with a smile whenever I see them), those we have become accustomed to the period drama including Ruth Wilson, Michelle Dockery, Olivia Williams and Matthew Macfadyen (who plays Oblonsky, Anna’s brother with such comic conviction, it’s a welcome return to the big screen).
Here comes the grouch part of my review – the one major casting issue I had was Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky. Bearing in mind that he had to play the love rival to the older looking Law, Johnson looks like he has just come away from the set of Skins, with a very bad go at trying to grow facial hair. Usually, I am a big fan of him, rewatching Nowhere Boy and Kick Ass with excitement but in this film, he felt like a bad choice. It just seems like a bigger, more mature actor was needed for the role where he was needing to be sensual, but instead he just felt like a bad schoolboy teasing the girls around him. Furthermore, it felt a bit uncomfortable watching Johnson and Knightly kiss, not for their age gap but for the time they have spent in the eyes of the audience (the latter being around much longer) and therefore, I felt this lost some of the capacity for drama and scandal, which it could have otherwise gained with another actor.
My other groan about the film was that for a two and a half hour film (and it felt like it as well), Wright did not cover virtually any of the social moralities or debates, which happen in the source text. Much of the novel is concerned with the changing Russian world, and the relationships between people in society as well as interactions with the land and the city – but instead, this adaptation was more concerned with the love stories between the characters and the soap opera elements of the scandal (of course, we have seen this work before in 2005’s BBC adaptation of Bleak House).
To round off, I would say this is a film of quality – something a modern British audience can be proud of. It is a well rounded film, and if we take a moment to consider Charlotte Brunsdon’s markers of quality (although she was originally writing about television), the film is based upon an outstanding literary source, shows off in heaps and bounds the amount of money put into the production, contains some of the best in today’s British acting and is certainly exportable around the world. Take a watch, it may not remain with you for a long time after, but I am sure it will dazzle in the moment.