Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina (2012)

Directed by: Joe Wright | 130 minutes | drama | Actors: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Dohmnall Gleeson, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew MacFadyen, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery, Alicia Vikander, Ruth Wilson, Holliday Grainger, Shirley Henderson, Bill Skarsgård

Ten years after his first great epic ‘War and Peace’, in 1877, the great Russian master Tolstoy wrote ‘Anna Karenina’. The title character, a socialite from Saint Petersburg, falls head over heels for a young army officer and sees her neatly cobbled life shattered in the process. With this tragedy, Tolstoy sharply criticizes the hypocrisy of his aristocratic contemporaries. The hefty classic is seen as a parable of the effort it takes to be honest with yourself when the rest of society expects dishonesty. ‘Anna Karenina’ has already been filmed several times – Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, among others, were seen in the lead role – and now British director Joe Wright is venturing into his very own version of the epic. We know Wright from costume dramas such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2005) and ‘Atonement’ (2007), films that stylistically and thematically tie in with ‘Anna Karenina’. However, Wright wouldn’t be Wright if he didn’t make it a visual masterpiece. His most important asset is that he cleverly and daringly incorporates the charade that is Russian high society in the film: in this way he optimally exploits the theatrical setting of the story.

Anna (Keira Knightley, who also starred in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) lives a rich but loveless life with her husband, influential politician Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), and their infant son. She clearly lacks fire and passion, but doesn’t want to risk her well-being either. That changes when she is invited to a ball and meets the charming army officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna was blown away when she reprimanded her brother Oblonksy (Matthew Macfadyen) for not being faithful to his wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald), and now look at her for yourself. Vronsky upsets her and Anna has no idea how to deal with those butterflies in her stomach. On the one hand she doesn’t feel like the scandals, and she really doesn’t want to risk her luxurious life, on the other hand it seems impossible for her to get Vronsky out of her mind. Parallel to Anna’s story is that of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who, like her, acts out of heartbreak, but makes a radically different choice in order to find happiness.

The fact that Wright casts his film in an artificial, theatrical form is on the one hand clever – certainly thanks to the careful choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the sumptuous costumes and beautiful sets – but it also provides the necessary distance. The characters never really come to life, making it difficult to identify with them. It is of course also the case in Tolstoy’s novel that distance is deliberately created, but whether the cinema audience of the twenty-first century will be put off by this is very questionable. With Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, ‘Anna Karenina’ doesn’t exactly have the most identifiable protagonists. Because although they both do well and have a good dose of charm, they radiate little heat. Gleeson and Macfadyen appear a lot more warm-blooded and therefore automatically more lively. Visually, ‘Anna Karenina’ is a true work of art. Joe Wright once again proves to be a director with style, flair, eye for detail and above all, guts. Here he dares to deliver a costume drama that is radically different from most other films in the genre because of its artistic set-up. The visual flair of this film is definitely a reason to see ‘Anna Karenina’ in the cinema. Had the characters not been so cold and distant, Wright would have delivered another small masterpiece after ‘Atonement’.

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