It’s probably best to admit up front that I’d never actually read Tolstoy’s tome about lust and infidelity in the Russian court. While I’ve made my way through much of the sullen Dostoyevsky, and maintain that dear Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was the finest writer of the 20th century, my knowledge of Russian authors, even those of Tolstoy’s fame, is spotty at best.
I should also admit that this is my first Joe Wright film – while Atonement sits on my shelf waiting to be watched, Hanna a film that I just missed out on seeing, and Pride and Prejudice something I actively skipped for no particularly good reason, it’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to either avoid this director or seek out his work with great enthusiasm.
Take it as read, then, that I watched Joe Wright’s adaptation as a kind of stand alone piece, free from any narrative expectations. Save for knowing that it was a period drama with Kiera Knightley, I went in to the film as cold as a Russian night.
From the opening shot of Anna Karenina, you know that Wright is toying with the audience. We’re introduced to a curtain opening, a proscenium framing the stage, artificial snow falling from the ceiling. Sets are struck and reorganized on stage, an even more explicit theatricality than Luhrman stages with Moulin Rouge. I worried that this device would soon be tiring, but it’s a credit both to the production design staff and Wright’s direction that these little visual twists and theatrical nods continue to both surprise and impress for the entire running time of the work.
Much of the film rests of Knightley’s (boney, pallid) shoulders, of course, and she seems perfectly capable of the task. Some have quite an version to her performances on screen, and her stiff lipped comportment and other affectations do take a bit of getting used to outside the rambunctiousness of a certain Pirate-theme series of films. I count myself as a fan of her acting while finding her physically somewhat repellent, if irrationally and perhaps unfairly so. Still, I can at least suspend my disbelief long enough to accept her as the aspect of affection for more than one male lead in the film, which is more than can be said for other so-called stars of her age churned out on this side of the Atlantic.
Speaking of guys on stage with her, I spent much of the film wondering who the hell that bearded guy with the familiar-yet-strange laconic voice was as her husband. Michael Fassbender perhaps? No, too short. It was only when the credits roled that I saw it was Jude Law – so, kudos to him for doing a supremely non-Jude Law performance. The mop-haired Aaron Johnson, still perhaps best known for doffing the green Balaclava in Kick-Ass, forms the other point in a triangle, a far more dashing and energetic foil to the somber role given to Law. This is exactly the role that a younger Jude Law would have mangled, let alone the likes of Orlando Bloom, her noted Pirates companion who could also have easily been cast not so long ago. It’s a credit to Johnson that he shows up, adorable blonde curls and white uniform, and doesn’t entirely appear as a complete prat.
Other supremely talented character actors make their requisite appearances, including a simpering and underused Kelly McDonald.
When the scope of the production does leave the stage, however, it tends to feel a little bit like a kind of half-assed attempt to redo scenes from the trailer for Doctor Zhivago.
I’m sure in the truncation of the massive tome to a mere 2+ hour running time, we’ve dropped more than a few plot lines, but there’s enough here to give a sense that, well, it’s kind of a silly, one track story. Call me jaded, but the comings and goings all feel more than a little bit telegraphed to a modern audience. Without narrative surprise, we’re left with more style than substance here, and given the production’s aesthetic proclivities, that’s not such a bad thing.
Pretty to look at, reasonably forgettable in the end, Anna Karenina will be one of those lovely, nomination-gleaning period pieces that some simply adore. It’s got a playful and unique style to it that transcends the charge of it being yet another costume drama, and while it doesn’t exactly explode off the screen as some new and wonderful thing, some will likely be quite drawn into the story’s charms above and beyond what’s inarguably a visually transfixing picture.