ANNA KARENINA (director/writer: Joe Wright; screenwriters: based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy/Tom Stoppard; cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey; editor: Melanie Ann Oliver; music: Dario Marianelli; cast: Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Jude Law (Karenin), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Count Vronsky), Kelly Macdonald (Dolly), Matthew Macfadyen (Oblonsky), Domhnall Gleeson (Levin), Ruth Wilson (Princess Betsy Tverskoy), Alicia Vikander (Kitty), Olivia Williams (Countess Vronsky), Emily Watson (Countess Lydia Ivanovna), Michelle Dockery (Princess Myagkaya); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Tim Bevan/Eric Fellner/Paul Webster; Focus Features; 2012-UK/USA)
“Stoppard wisely keeps intact Tolstoy’s great dialogue.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Joe Wright (“The Soloist”/”Pride and Prejudice”/”Atonement”)directs a bold theatrical version of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel, published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877, and the British director co-writes the fine literary script with the renown playwright Sir Tom Stoppard. While using the 19th century imperial Russian society as background, it explores the adulterous love of an alluring aristocratic neurotic married woman with a dashing young nobleman bachelor cavalry officer and makes the pic look different than the 26 other film versions by utilizing a 19th theater setting for its elegant stage productions as it sets out to prove what the Bard said that “all the world is a stage.”
In the Russia of 1874, the virtuous Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is married to the rigidly officious Imperial minister Karenin (Jude Law), and dotes on their 8-year-old son Serozha (Oskar McNamara). While going by train from her St. Petersburg hometown to visit in Moscow her philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), with the purpose of talking his unforgiving wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) into forgiving hubby for his lapse in judgment in his affair with their governess and therefore saving their marriage. On the train Anna meets the scandalous worldly Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), who is met at the Moscow railroad station by her callow 21-year-old white uniformed cavalry son Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). He falls in love with the older Anna at first sight and she likewise feels a stinging passion for him. They meet again at a ball the Count attends with Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the 18-year-old sister of Dolly, who just rejected the marriage proposal of the sensitive provincial landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson)–a close friend of Oblonsky. Kitty immediately looks upon Anna as a rival, as she glares at them dancing their hearts out in a robotic way (artificiality is a virtue in this pic). When the Count gets transferred to St. Petersburg, he begins an affair with Anna that reverberates with both romantic and tragic consequences, as Anna loses respect among her peers and is ostracized as a slut who abandoned her respectable husband and lovely child for wild sex.
Clearly Tolstoy was sympathetic with his pretty heroine’s courage to defy the hypocritical ruling class society and end her dull loveless marriage at any price. This film version paints the lovers as selfish and self-absorbed types who refuse to recognize how their peers will treat this affair, and by boldly acting upon their love must pay a dear price for such liberties. Though well-acted and visually pleasing, the couple is not all that likeable and the film never warms up enough to reach our heart. Nevertheless Stoppard wisely keeps intact Tolstoy’s great dialogue, though changing scenes such as adding the intense heart-yearning railroad scene in Moscow between the soon-to-be lovers–one that was not in the book. Stoppard keeps it just about the love affair instead of running with essayist Tolstoy’s many other themes, which would have made the film probably impossible to follow.
Knightley’s twitchy performance compares favorably with Garbo’s Anna in 1927 and 1935, which is saying much about her absorbing performance.