Film Review: Anna Karenina

Tuesday 12 August 2014 by

Anna Karenina, Joe Wright, Film

If I’m honest, it took me a long time to watch Anna Karenina because I’m not the greatest fan of Keira Knightley. But how I wish I had given it a go sooner!

Let’s just sit back a moment and appreciate the absolute visual joy this film is. Director Joe Wright has created a film that is a feast for the eye; styled as if it were performed within a single theatre – the scenes changing around the actors becomes part of the story itself, and it feels like a grand performance (Oblonsky’s taking on-and-off of his coat becomes a performance in itself). The costumes, too, are stunning – costume designer Jacqueline Durran has created an array of costumes that almost overtake the actors when on screen.

So, yes, Knightley is still fairly unbearable. When I read Anna Karenina I was struck by her inner strength, but Knightley performs her as simpering and foolish. Although, in many respects, she is this too in the books, there is a steeliness there that Knightley just didn’t carry through. It also misses the sharp humour of Tolstoy’s storytelling, creating a more pantomime-like Oblonsky than the book designed, and removing some of Anna Karenina’s wit to make her seem more reliant on her male counterparts. Even Karenin has his funny-sweet moments in the book that are misrepresented as obstinacy here.

But if you were to swipe aside Knightley and the rather stiff acting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson (his Vronsky is less dashing cad and more the “before” part of a constipation advert), there is an overwhelming array of cast to choose from. The famous faces keep on coming, including swift appearances from Bill Skarsgård (Alexander’s brother) and Cara Delevingne. Personal favourites include Jude Law’s cuckolded Karenin and Matthew Macfadyen’s bluff Oblonsky as major players, but the brief roles from Ruth Wilson (Princess Betsy Tverskoy) and Emily Watson (Countess Lydia Ivanova) are delightful.

I would always recommend reading the book beforehand, and in this case it is still true, but I would say that this film, despite its dicey moments, is something that can be forgiven purely on the basis that it is just so beautiful. The costumes, set design and even the musical score comes together to create something that is a sheer joy to behold. I wish I hadn’t left it so long to watch, and rather added it to the collection of hangover films that are gorgeous viewing, but perhaps light on the plot. Anna Karenina reminded me a lot of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in terms of its emphasis on the film itself aside from the plot – the dedication of time to setting, costume and visual array almost in preference to script.

Whether you like Keira Knightley or not, and whether you like Tolstoy or not (although its link to Tolstoy’s original is often tenuous), I would say that you need to see this film for its feat of beauty. I adore the method of keeping it within the theatre, and I would kill for one of those dresses!

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