I had the fortune of approaching Anna Karenina as a blank canvas, knowing nothing of the story having never read the book nor seen any previous film or tv adaptations of it. I’m not one for reading classic Russian literature and my experience of doing so simply extends to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I also entered the cinema believing I had never seen a Joe Wright film (it was only a few days after that I remembered he directed Hanna), but this meant at the time I didn’t really know what to expect from him, leaving only some vague preconceived notions about what might be delivered based on his history with period dramas.
So, for the uninitiated like I, the story is thus: the titular Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is wife of Russian councillor Alexei (Jude Law), but she falls for young soldier Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leading to an affair that takes them down an inevitably disruptive path. Meanwhile young Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is struggling to find love, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is prepared to shut himself away from it, and Karenina’s brother-in-law Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen) is philandering. These are the strands covered by the film but I clearly can’t say whether this is a fair representation of the novel.
As a film Anna Karenina is very well put together. The costume design is sumptuous with a certain stateliness, there are some great visual moments and the music fits and works well. Acting wise all the players seem decent enough without there being any real stand-outs. Despite all this however, there are a couple of major issues that I really struggled to overcome:
Firstly the lead characters… Karenina starts out as a beautiful, elegant character, moving seemingly happily within the highest echelons of society. The way she struggles with her building feelings for Vronsky is intriguing as it clearly offers something she was lacking, leading to her internal battle of embracing this wild new thing versus the duty and honour to both her powerful husband, whom she doesn’t really love, and their son. But once her decision is made the whole thing falls flat, losing any excitement or intrigue as she realises the impact of her actions and becomes incredibly insufferable and irritating for the rest of the film. How much of that insufferableness is down to the original character rather than Knightley’s portrayal it'd be interesting to know. I wanted to see some genuine emotion from Law’s Alexei, rather than him being so impassively calm and controlled. Vronsky’s arrogance and relentless seducing of a married woman made him impossible to like so I really wanted to see him fail. If these are characters we’re supposed to like and root for then it really didn’t work, but then maybe that’s just my principles overriding objectiveness.
The other major issue at times seemed like it should've been a strength... a good portion of the film is staged like a play; or more specifically staged in an empty theatre, with certain scenes appearing to take place on stage, with other scenes taking place backstage (walking through the streets for example is actually walking backstage) and others out on the floor where the audience would be. There are moments when the camera spins round and we see sets/actors resetting to become something else. It’s clever and fascinating. It doesn’t totally work. Not every scene follows this style with some making no visual reference to the theatrical setting whatsoever, whilst there are a handful of scenes shot in the countryside which felt particularly jarring. This inconsistency becomes very frustrating once your eyes have had the chance to feast on some beautiful outdoor scenery and a sense of space, light and expanse, as it undermines setting other scenes, such as the horse race, in this dark indoor environment, no matter how cleverly assembled they are. It simply needed to be an all or nothing approach for this technique to work.
I actually quite enjoyed watching Anna Karenina, which was unexpected as period films of this nature generally do little for me. But aside from saying how beautiful it looked, the issues I had with it mean I'm going to struggle to say anything more positive. The filmmakers should be applauded for trying something different with their staging conceit, but by not running it through every scene it ultimately failed by being frustrating and jarring. The supporting cast all proved more interesting than the three main characters, especially the Kitty / Levin / Oblonsky storylines. A viewer of course can’t help but bring a bit of themselves into how they interpret what's happening on screen, so it’s fair to say many others wouldn’t have the same issues as I with Vronsky and the Karenina's. The question is, would I have these same character issues with the book too, or was it just the film? I honestly don’t think I’m prepared to find out.