Anna Karenina is one of this year’s most highly anticipated costume dramas.
Based on the book by Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina takes place in 19th century Russia and tells the story of married Anna (Keira Knightley) who embarks on an affair that begins to destroy her. This might sound like well trodden ground but Anna Karenina is a deep and arresting tale that explores the different facets of love and the judgemental nature of society.
This latest adaptation of the novel comes just five years after Bernard Roses’s version in 1997 and is brought to us from acclaimed screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, and accomplished Pride And Prejudice director, Joe Wright.
With exquisite costumes and sets, the visual style of Anna Karenina is superb. Wright has made a bold decision to break away from striking Russian locations and has set the action in an old European theatre. Movement flows across the screen beautifully as characters walk purposefully across the stage while set pieces change in the background. Thanks to creative thinking and skilled camera work, this chosen style is imaginative not restrictive. As journeys are depicted using a child’s train set, Anna Karenina feels new and refreshing, blending drama, nostalgia and theatricality to stunning effect. As if in the theatre, props and extras are used to build tension and atmosphere - one striking scene sees an office of bureaucrats stamping documents in time to produce a stunning score.
Stylistically, Anna Karenina plays up the dramatic - in a scene that sees Anna take her first dance with lover Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) the pair glide across the dance floor amidst frozen couples and, as the orchestra reaches a frenzied crescendo, fraught close ups of the main characters remind us of what is at stake.
Of course, the theatre is more than just a style statement, it’s also a metaphor for the way in which society intrudes on private lives and judges Anna. But this stylistic perspective is not without its problems. At times the use of the theatre verges on surreal - when a horse race is staged from within it’s confines - and makes some elements of the plot hard to follow. The constant emphasis on style also begins to feel tiring in the film’s later stages, as it starts to feel overly long.
Keira Knightley looks stunning in her vast array of costumes and Anna Karenina is sure to become one of the most memorable films of the year for its fashions alone. As Anna’s marriage to Alexei Karenina becomes stifling, Anna’s attraction to Count Vronsky grows and their subsequent affair begins to unravel, Knightley expertly demonstrates a whole range of emotions from Anna’s ecstasy to suspicion and paranoia.
Jude Law also delivers on cold tolerance as Alexei but the relationship between Anna and her husband fails to captivate until the couple are confronted with the realities of Anna’s affair. Despite convincing performances from both Knightley and Law, it’s difficult to feel close to either of their characters and so the emotional impact of Anna Karenina slips away into the ether.
As for the film’s sub-plots, these are often sidelined in favour of the main attraction. The story of Levin, the rejected courter who retreats to rural Russia in search of a simpler life, seems somewhat disjointed from the rest of the film despite a quality performance from Domhnall Gleeson. Anna Karenina suffers from trying to cram a novel of over 900 pages into 130 minutes. Even so, the film still feels overly long as we are unable to connect with characters kept at an emotional distance without ample space to develop.
Anna Karenina is beautiful to watch - stylish, sensual and sumptuous - making a refreshing change from formulaic period dramas. With quality performances from a talented cast Anna Karenina is theatrical and dramatic but this bold take on a familiar classic doesn’t always work, putting its audience at an emotional distance from the tale’s more powerful messages.
Running time: 130 minutes