Directed by Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law
Rated R for some sexuality and violence
2 hr. 9 min.
If what you’re expecting from Anna Karenina is a 21st century Dr. Zhivago, you might want to rethink that.
Yes, it’s a Russian drama with lots of love, tragedy and rich aristocrats, but this film has shrunk Tolstoy and his behemoth story into a Broadway theater format and turned it into more of a modern ballet than an epic drama.
Whether or not you care for this version of Anna may depend on (a.) whether you are loyal to the book version by Tolstoy or (b.) whether you can relax, sit back and enjoy a Tolstoy knockoff that is a bit more freewheeling.
Young aristocrat Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is married to an older man, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a well-respected minister in the Russian government. They have a son, a beautiful home and high status within their community. It’s everything a person might hope for to live a comfortable life.
When Anna takes a trip to Moscow to help counsel her philandering brother, Prince Stepan Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), and grief-stricken sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), she meets a handsome Russian cavalry officer, Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) at a society ball.
For Vronsky, it is love at first sight and he relentlessly pursues Anna back to her hometown. She is intrigued by his advances and eventually they have an affair.
Whether she can survive being emotionally caught between the two powerful Alexeis in her life and a society that ruthlessly ostracizes her as a scandalous woman, is the gist of the story. It’s a long tragic tale about Anna’s passion, rebellion and frank expression of her own sexuality.
This version of Anna is going to split audiences. If you’re willing to take the story at face value, you may enjoy the way it’s tightly sewn together and artfully crafted. Theater scenes interspersed with live shots. Human dialogue metered to intricate dance numbers. All quite lovely to watch.
Granted, it skims over details like a duck flying over water, but director Joe Wright’s theatric style is so interesting, you might grant him artistic license. In fact, there are moments in this film when the choreography and dialogue work quite well together, giving his narrative a sense of dance even when the scenes are textual.
If you’re an actual fan of the book, however, this film will only remind you of the depth and breadth of Tolstoy. Those same details that are being overlooked, the very flight of that flying duck, might leave you disappointed and disgruntled, the same as you might feel if you were limited to reading the CliffsNotes version of Anna rather than the real Tolstoy.
Then there is the acting to deal with — at times good, at times flat. The most controversial portrayal is by Keira Knightley, who, despite being the older of the two star-struck lovers, often acts as the less mature partner and comes off as flighty, callow and thoughtless about the impact of her illicit love affair on her friends and family.
And this, in a sense, is what’s most bothersome about this film. In Tolstoy, you get a fully drawn character struggling with the complexities of Russian society. In Wright’s Anna, it feels like a less nuanced, more moralistic tale of a good girl gone bad.
This film is like eating a bag of popcorn. It may taste good going down, but eventually you’re going to want to consume the tastier Tolstoy for dinner. This film won’t give you that, but it might point you in the right direction. Best to simply take this Anna at face value and enjoy it as a tasty hors d’oeuvre. Then go out to a local bookstore and feast on the real thing.