Anna Karenina is a classic novel by Leo Tolstoy. It has a myriad of film and TV adaptations. Set in 1874 in Imperial Russia, it is a story of love, passion, and forgiveness. Centering on a married woman who has an affair, the setting of 1874 and upper-class society does no favors for Anna Karenina or any woman who travels down her path. Stories like these are a reminder of how far we have come as a society, at least in the United States. Women are not outcasts for having affairs and have to leave their good name and their children behind.
Director Joe Wright takes a chance with his version of Anna Karenina. This is not the same period piece or classic tale that Joe Wright has tackled before. While the story of Anna Karenina may be the same, his vision is wholly different and unique. Never have I seen a film that takes this perspective. The audience is essentially watching a play, granted this would be a very expensive and enormous play were it to ever actually inhabit a Broadway run. The sets are minimal, yet complex. The sets change with a few props or small walls added, but getting to that final placement of the set reveals the costumed stagehands and the behind the scenes look at the stage. To describe everything that is done to pull this film off successfully would take too many words. Even seeing the film a couple of times may not allow enough time to grasp the intricacies of all the sets.
The film does escape the stage setting and go out into the real world. The effect can be a bit jarring, when your mind and eyes have become accustomed to this ever-changing artificial world. The first escape takes place as Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) returns to his rural, agricultural home from a more posh setting. He is rejected by his love and leaves Moscow, his love, and the stage behind, stepping into the snow covered fields. It is absolutely brilliant. Other escapes occur, but not all are as literal as the first. There is even one that is in reverse.
While there is a great setting, it will fall apart if the acting does not work, but in this case it does. Keira Knightley is once again in her element as a woman from another time. She takes the character from complacency to desperate love to despair. She is countered by Jude Law playing her duitiful, rule-abiding husband, Karenin, and her young, passionate lover, Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Both actors take fully to characters. Jude Law is impossibly reserved and duty bound until his world starts to fall apart. You can see it in his demeanor and his face as it all unfolds. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the embodiment of the wild soldier who really can’t see the rules until it is too late. His hair is blonde and unruly, while the rest of his dress is uniform and reserved. It gives the hint that he is game for the hunt for Anna.
There is quite an ensemble cast including Matthew Macfadyen, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, and Kelly Macdonald. There are some small parts that include appearances from Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery and Thomas Howes. Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) is on screen for only a minute. The most unrecognizable actress is Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre, Luther) who plays Princess Betsy Tverskoy. She has dark hair and eyebrows in real life, but for her character her skin is pale and her hair and eyebrows are a white blonde. Knowing she was in this film, it took a couple of scenes for me to grasp that that character onscreen was her.
The costumes and use of color is icing on the cake. Looking back at the film, I can see why certain colors are used for characters and show the journey they take in the story. Anna dresses mostly in dark colors, but branches into whites during certain scenes. The dresses are beautifully grand as well as the jewelry.
While the story of Anna Karenina may be familiar to you, this interpretation of it is not. The story itself is nothing new. Many authors have written about women who have fallen victim to society because of love. The reason to see this film is because of how Joe Wright has orchestrated the tale. He uses such detailed stage sets that I fail to grasp where a director would even start planning a film such as this. The way the stage setting is used it could be overwhelming to some, used too much. In my case, it is a welcome and interesting vision of what a period film could and can be.
I give Anna Karenina 4 “outrageously large diamonds” out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek