Since 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, I have loved director Joe Wright, in particular when he’s working with Keira Knightley. He creates some of the most striking and sweeping movies, and his new film, Anna Karenina, is no exception. It’s dazzling, a magnificent treat for the eyes! But with all its beauty and sparkle, the story and passion isn’t as astonishing as its surroundings.
Based on Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina follows a Russian aristocrat (Keira Knightley) as she begins an affair with a young, affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). The affair causes a huge scandal and completely humiliates Anna’s high moral husband, Alexei (Jude Law). Can Anna sacrifice everything for true love?
To start off, I was never a huge fan of Tolstoy’s novel. Therefore, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this new adaptation. I mainly had high hopes because Wright is behind the project and was bringing an interesting new concept to the film. Most of Anna Karenina is set inside an empty, 19th Century looking theater. The film unfolds in various parts of the theater (mostly the stage, but at times the auditorium or up in the rafters). Then, it takes us outside of the theater at random. The transitions between theater and outside, the real and unreal, are smooth. Wright makes those transitions with such fascinating ease. It shouldn’t come as a surprise since everything in the film is choreographed. The way the characters move about onstage and around each other adds an extra touch of whimsy to this bold concept. Aesthetically, it all comes together very well.
The main love story, though? The affair between Anna and Vronsky is weak. The chemistry between Knightley and Johnson is pretty flat; I felt no real passion or tension between the two. In addition, there’s no real explanation to why these two are together and risking so much to be with each other. As the audience, we just have to except it and move on with the repercussions of this pairing. If anything, the betrayal felt more monumental than the actual love story. It’s rather disappointing because I wanted this story to be as big and bold as the movie itself, and it wasn’t. Although, there is another love story at play between the characters, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), which was much more endearing and authentic than whatever was going on between Anna and Vronsky. And it’s Levin’s character that takes us outside the theater at times, a breather from the claustrophobia of the stage, which works as a metaphor to Russian high-society.
While the storytelling wasn’t up-to-par, I still thought Keira Knightley gave a fantastic performance as the lead. Aaron Johnson was good too, even though whoever casted Knightley and Johnson as a passionate couple should seriously be rethinking that decision. I was impressed by Jude Law’s performance, as well as Domhnall Gleeson’s. Matthew Macfadyen was one of my favorites; he comically played Anna’s adulterous, yet spirited brother, Oblonsky.
Joe Wright proves with Anna Karenina just how great of a director he is. The long takes and glittering movements through scenes are incredible. If only the storytelling was as rapturous as the direction, Anna Karenina would’ve been one of the most heart-stopping and exhilarating films ever.
Rating: 7.5/10 stars
Anna Karenina is now playing in theaters.