Only last year Joe Wright, director of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, made Euro-thriller Hanna, incorporating all the directorial elements he laid claim to earlier with the mainstream-style script that allowed a large audience to appreciate his calibre as a director outside of dramas and period pieces. Yet, only 15 months on, Wright returns to the period dramas that got him started with Anna Karenina, starring his good-luck charm Keira Knightley as the titular tragic figure.
Set in 19th century Russia, the story sees Anna (Knightley), wife of a Russian minister (Law) finding excitement in the affection of a young cavalier (Taylor-Johnson), and as the affair becomes public knowledge, Anna and her husband’s lives are thrown into disrepair. At the same time, Anna’s brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) offers love advice to young Levin (Domhall Gleeson) as he attempts to propose to a fair lady. Oblonsky, however, has his own troubles, as he can’t keep it in his trousers, whilst his wife (Kelly Macdonald) tries to keep the pretense of a marriage going.
It’s a soap opera, it’s a mini-series, and it’s a Greek tragedy. And as such, with 129 minutes to tell everything in, Wright chooses to put the film on the stage, and around this stage, as these lives and loves appear theatrically, akin to something Baz Lurhman may try. This, however, is a wildly unsuccessful attempt at altering the style of a period drama, as half the film forgets to be like this and is set in more natural locations. This half, as well, wildly shifts in tone from the A-story of tragedy, love and death, as whimsy, bawdy romantic comedy and innuendo appear all over the Macfadyen segments, completely damaging, irreparably, the possibility of engrossing oneself into the world of the film and the characters’ lives. Played for laughs, these scenes prove fruitless and only serve to increase the film’s runtime, a runtime that is bloated already, as the film could have been told within 100 minutes quite easily.
More often than not, Wright’s style and visuals only serve to add extra texture to the films, because he manages to get great performances from his cast. With Anna Karenina, however, it appears that even Keira Knightley can’t save the picture, with a mediocre performance demanding something with more depth, or alternatively something slightly showier. Jude Law is given nothing to do, which hurts as he’s actually on top of his game with the film, offering something of quiet, dignified sadness that is wonderful, but not seen enough. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is unbelievable as a young man wooing Keira; at no point does he offer any charm or charisma to give any reasoning behind making a woman want to try something new with this guy. Macdonald, Olivia Williams and Shirley Henderson pop up briefly and do what could be called their usual stuff, nothing out of the ordinary, but remind you that these are some of the better actresses in Britain. For a film demanding performances of their generation, nothing really comes from this film.
With music that doesn’t do much more than remind you that everything is oh-so-tragic, decent production design and visual effects that, whilst oddly reminiscent of Sucker Punch at times, do exactly what they need to do for the sake of the film, even if it’s a bad direction to go down.
Technically decent, Anna Karenina is an overlong, underwritten film that tries hard to bring what is considered a classic piece of writing to the screen in a unique way, but loses a lot of emotion, entertainment, and focus frequently as the film shifts wildly between stories, tones, characters and scenes that ultimately seem fruitless. It’s too long to wait for a disappointing destination, and the journey is pretty dire.