Director Joe Wright’s approach starts the movie in a large, old theatre of the type that might have existed in St. Petersburg in Karenina’s day. However, although the theater is a framing device, the movie is not a film of a stage production. Instead, the production moves unpredictably from realistic setting to theatrical artificiality. A character passes through a doorway from a street and steps into the backstage.
“Anna Karenina” is a tragedy in the classical sense, in that everything that happens to Anna is due to her own passionate but unwise decisions. The events of the story are naturalistic, making it almost a verisimo piece in style. Therefore, we did not feel it was well served by the intrusions of artificiality, including circus-like elements such as quitting time at Oblonsky’s office being greeted by a sailor playing an accordion, a mime with a clarinet, and a man riding a high-wheel bicycle through the office.
Given that, in order to compress the lengthy novel into a movie, there are a lot of short scenes, it’s tedious to try to sort out which incidents are significant, and which are just “art”, particularly if, like me, you haven’t read the novel before.
If you can sort out the signal from the noise, there are some very fine performances by Jude Law as the undemonstrative yet feeling Minister Karenin, and by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. Keira Knightley is excellent as Anna, portraying her infatuation and then passion for Vronsky, and then her nervous breakdown and descent into drug-fueled paranoia, with believability and fire.
Production values are high, with very handsome costumes and attractive settings when not in the “theatre”—which isn’t believable even as a theatre. The one exception is Vronsky’s mustache, which looks like carpet lint badly glued to Taylor-Johnson’s upper lip, and is distinctly distracting in close-up.
Final verdict: Interesting, but unsuccessful. Other critics have been very laudatory, so your mileage may vary.
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