‘Anna Karenina’ movie review: Keira Knightley in sumptuous take on the Tolstoy classic

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of literature’s enduring classics. 125 renowned contemporary authors chose it as the greatest work of fiction in J. Peder Zane’s The Top Ten. It’s been filmed more than 25 times over the last century, with a (perhaps) definitive screen version in 1935 starring Greta Garbo in the title role (Garbo also starred in a silent version years earlier with famed off-screen lover John Gilbert).

Obviously, any new take of the Tolstoy classic will have a lot to live up to (the last – a 1997 version starring Sophie Marceau and directed by Bernard Rose – failed to make much of an impact). But director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) and (Czech-born) screenwriter Tom Stoppard try their damnedest in this new film, a bold, exciting, dazzlingly original take on a classic piece of literature…which happens to be drained of just about all the emotion and humanity inherent in the source material.

It’s frustrating when a movie works so well on one level but falters so obviously on another. But I still recommend catching this version of Anna Karenina, which (stylistically) comes across as a more refined version of Moulin Rouge, minus the pop songs; if you liked that film (I didn’t) and are familiar with Tolstoy’s novel (you may need to be, to fully grasp the story here), you might just love this one. 

In any case, after so many stale and restrained costume dramas, here’s one that’s audacious and fresh and brimming with high-powered energy. Ironically, ‘stagey’ is the appropriate descriptor for Wright’s vision of the story: inside a boundless neo-renaissance theater, curtains open, sets go up and come down, and actors both ignore their artificial surroundings and become part of them, freezing in place in the midst of elaborately choreographed dance numbers. 

In other words, we’re always aware that we’re watching a staged performance. It’s a fascinating concept that intellectualizes the story of Anna Karenina: the poor woman’s center-stage life, which was a spectacle for her contemporaries in 19th century Russia, is now recreated on a literal stage for us. 

But while we may connect on an intellectual level with Stoppard’s script and Wright’s vision, the emotional impact just isn’t there; it’s not been excised – this version is as faithful to the novel as any – but it’s completely overshadowed by style in a cinematic experiment. Few tears will be shed during this adaptation of one of fiction’s greatest tragedies, and that’s a crying shame. 

Keira Knightley stars as the titular heroine, whose blind love for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) drives her from her husband Alexei (Jude Law) and young son, and irreparably impacts her high-society life. Her story is effectively – if dispassionately – conveyed, but the set pieces are a real standout; the initial dance sequence between Anna and Vronsky – which recalls the ballroom scene in Russian Ark – is a real stunner.

But wait! While Anna’s story fails to impress much, there’s some great work done on the side with Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the honorable man and good woman whose lives sharply contrast with Anna and Vronsky. Levin was a co-lead in Tolstoy’s novel, but always seems to get the short shrift in the film adaptations; I can’t say this Anna Karenina is entirely different, but what exists of Levin’s story is beautifully done: the scene where he returns to Kitty is magical, and contains the emotional heft the rest of the film is lacking. 

But what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in style: Anna Karenina is a dazzling production, and a lock for awards-season recognition in makeup, costumes, set design and other areas. Cinematography is also a knockout, with long, unbroken takes twirling us around the stage, though nothing comes close to that Dunkirk Beach sequence from Wright’s previous, Atonement.  

Acting is uniformly fine, though the leads seem to lack the flair for the melodramatic that the director requires of them. The supporting cast fares better, with effectively subtle turns from Gleeson and Vikander, and an animated one by Matthew MacFadyen as Oblonsky, Anna’s brother. Dario Marianelli’s original soundtrack is superb, and perhaps the finest of 2012.   

Anna Karenina is an immaculate production, and to forgive its one flaw would mean falling in love with this dazzlingly sumptuous adaptation. But that one flaw, in the eyes of many, will prove fatal.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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