With seven previous movie and two television adaptations under its belt, Anna Karenina has been a massively popular story since it was written by Leo Tolstoy in 1877. The story of a woman in Russian high society who decides to risk it all for an affair with a younger man clearly resonates with audiences and its not hard to imagine why. Director Joe Wright takes aim at putting his very own spin on the story, and what a spin it is. Wright’s version of Anna Karenina is beautifully shot and the world he portrays is quite unique.
Our story begins with a woman, Anna (Keira Knightley) who is of high society in 19th century Russia. She has a son and is married to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law). Alexi is a staunch and rigid man who lacks any ounce of passion. Their marriage is one of societal pressure and convenience hardly of love. This seeds the ground for Anna to look elsewhere for someone who can match her passion. Anna isn’t necessarily unhappy but she certainly isn’t happy; just floating through life from one empty and mundane moment to the next. Things begin to change however when Anna leaves her husband and son behind in St. Petersburg to take a trip to Moscow. While in Moscow she meets the younger and dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). From their very first glance their fates are sealed. Interconnected for a lifetime whether they wanted to admit it or not, circumstances be damned. Vronsky feeling simply overwhelmed with passion for Anna pursues relentlessly. Anna withdraws and Vronsky pursues further. The classic cat and mouse game was broken of its cliche feeling by Anna being honest in her hesitation. She was certainly not staying away from Vronsky for affect. She knew their relationship would destroy them both, and the lives of her son and husband would also hang in the balance. Unfortunately, love and passion have a way of ruining best laid plans and the two engage in a steamy affair. They become the very hushed talk of St. Petersburg. The age old question of how far are you willing to go for love is the overarching message here. Is Anna and Vronsky’s relationship worth it? Passion versus stability. Love versus status.
One element that simply cannot be ignored in this version is the transition and stage presence. Director Joe Wright shows the audience that they are watching a play inside of a film. I wasn’t aware that the film would be shot like this and it was a pleasant surprise. All the scene changes were comprised of curtain raises, manual furniture moving, and camera manipulation. This was baffling at first but after a mere few minutes you will adjust. The scenes themselves were well shot and lit perfectly. The costumes were absolutely breathtaking. High society in 19th century Russia was extravagant and whoever created the costumes did an excellent job reaffirming that.
The acting in the film was astounding. I have really enjoyed Keira Knightley’s move into more serious and indie roles like this. As of late, her work on A Dangerous Method and now Anna Karenina shows that long have the days past of Knightly showing up in a vapid romantic comedy. Her ability to portray the tortured soul of a woman conflicted was fantastic. As her life shifted from pure passion into a social death spiral Knightly conveys the human transition wonderfully. Alongside her is her stoic husband Alexi Karenin played by Jude Law. While known as a Hollywood handsome man, here he is anything but. A cold man whose looks are purposefully dulled to emphasize Count Vronsky’s charm and good looks. Law presents a case for the effects of stoicism, able to stay calm and stay the course in the face of a crumbling marriage and societal respect. The mirror opposite of Law’s stoicism was Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of Count Vronsky. The dashing cavalry man who steals the heart of Karenin’s wife is truly a likeable rogue. Taylor-Johnson makes Vronsky vulnerable, relatable, and in some ways a very sad character. He seems like a man who has everything that he wants but also he suffers from having no true agency. He is lead around by his mother and then by Anna. Rarely making true decisions for himself. Supporting roles of Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfayden) and his friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) gave the film a level of comedy and sweetness. Especially Gleeson’s role of a man who refused to give up on love and his rejection of being apart of Russia’s high society.
In conclusion, a true gem right before Oscar season. Anna Karenina plays to every period piece strength and almost none of their weaknesses. Helmed by a director who knows the genre all too well and starring actors who have really come into their own over the last few years. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s transition from a skinny crime fighter in Kick-Ass to a formidable drama star beginning with Albert Nobbs and now with Anna Karenina to Keira Knightley’s powerful performance I would not be surprised if Oscar nominations are laid at the feet of many people in this cast.
[easyreview title= "Review of Anna Karenina" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]