Film Review: ‘Anna Karenina’ (2012)

British director Joe Wright is certainly no stranger to sweeping period adaptations, having taken on both Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and  Ian McEwan’s Atonement in recent years. His latest film, Anna Karenina (2012), is easily his most daring costume drama to date, utilising all manor of theatrical devices to bring Leo Tolstoy’s novel-come-paperweight to life on the big screen. Wright may not quite be the new David Lean, but his undeniably inconsistent efforts demand both respect and admiration.

Wright regular Keira Knightley stars as the titular Anna, a privileged 19th century socialite in St. Petersburg, married to Jude Law’s widely respected aristocrat Alexei Karenin. On a visit to Moscow to visit her womanising – though lovable – older brother Oblonsky (a welcome return to screens for Matthew Macfadyen), Anna catches the eye of spoken-for officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). So begins a treacherous love affair that threatens to inextricably alter the lives of everyone involved.

Tolstoy’s vast, politically-grounded Russian soap opera is hardly new to cinema-going audiences, with numerous adaptations littered across the decades. To his immense credit, Wright has really tried to give the well-worn tale a shot-in-the-arm, presenting his own bombastic interpretation full of visual vim and vigour. Comparisons with the aesthetic style of Baz Luhrmann may well be unavoidable, but thankfully Wright forgoes any jarring pop anachronisms, instead preferring to revitalise Anna Karenina with a flourish of dynamic sets and blood-red stage curtains.

The results are inconsistent at best, with a number of scenes strangely devoid of any such pomp and flair. However, when it’s done correctly, Wright’s expansive melodrama shows flashes of Sokurov-esque inspiration, recalling the one-shot wonder of the Russian auteur’s technical master-stroke, Russian Ark (2002). Ballroom scenes are unequivocally the highlight of the piece, with time literally brought to a stand-still as lovers Anna and Vronsky gallivant through the frozen crowds, as graceful and liberated as swans during courtship. Sadly, such moments are all too rare, with Wright’s overly-long screenplay frequently suffocated by its own sense of reverence.

Heavily flawed and unapologetically indulgent, strong performances from its all-star cast (Macfayden, Law and the ever-impressive Domhnall Gleeson all on good form) and several sumptuous set-pieces just about set Wright’s Anna Karenina aside from the madding crowd of bland costume romps. Here’s hoping others take note of such risk-taking, bravado tactics in future adaptations.

Daniel Green