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Film Review: Anna Karenina

12th September 2012

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Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina has been hotly anticipated. Why? There are probably a few reasons.

Tolstoy’s novel is a classic, obviously - and we’re all suckers for a historical tragedy we can pretend to weep over. The often-derided Keira Knightly has perfected the (challenging?) role of distressed female in period costume. And of course, no one can resist a good love story.

Is Anna Karenina a good love story? In terms of the 864-page novel, I assume so. I won’t pretend I’ve read it in any kind of depth. But this film, squeezed into just over two hours and starring the aforementioned Knightly as Anna, Jude Law as her husband, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her lover, Count Vronsky? Hmm.

I had a few slight problems with Joe Wright’s interpretation.

Without a doubt, the film is beautiful. The decision to make it a play within a play gives a lyrical quality from the opening seconds, and perfectly reflects the courtly society of aristocratic, tsarist 1870s Russia. All of our characters, from the beginning, are playing a part. Our title character sits on a train and questions whether it is better to regret something rather than never having the opportunity in the first place. Later, we see how starkly different her role as St Petersburg society wife is to her actual desires.

The costumes, as to be expected, are incredible – if not 100% historically accurate (says costume designer Jacqueline Durran in October Glamour). Durran has stayed faithful to Tolstoy where it matters, though, including with Anna’s black dress in the ball scene when she first dances with Vronsky. The white ball gown chosen for the famous moment towards the end of the film, when Anna descends the stairs amongst the crowds who are discussing her infidelity, is also iconic – although the scene could have been extended in order to give it more weight.

The opulence (of set, costume, theatrics – essentially every aspect of the production) are essential to reflect the society in which it is set. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if it came at the expense of, and ultimately overshadowed, everything that the film was supposed to be about. It seemed to me to be a question of style over substance – brimming with aristocratic drama and sparkle; lacking on the psychology of the characters.

Also, I didn’t find Count Vronsky and his fop-head/ mismatched moustache combo particularly attractive. Which might make me shallow, but hey – when you’re rooting for a love story it’s kind of important.

Aside from his lack of smouldering, Count Vronsky didn’t appear to have a whole lot of chemistry with Anna herself – again, something that is pretty much essential if we’re going to believe in the story being told. After only a couple of meetings and lingering looks, I found it hard to believe in their relationship. This might be because squeezing 864 pages into 129 minutes causes certain aspects to be culled, but it doesn’t stop it being an issue.

I also found it difficult to sympathise with the characters. Although their selfishness appears to be intrinsic (and is likely how Tolstoy intended them to be) it did nothing to make me care about their eventual fates.

These negative points assembled create a film that skirts over the surface. A little more hint at the characters’ motivations and just a slight touch more depth could have transformed Anna Karenina into something with real substance rather than just brocade and fur-lined veneer. Instead of a serious study of late-tsarist St Petersburg we have a kind of Tolstoy-light, muted down for an audience that it has woefully underestimated – and this is a huge shame. 


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