Adapting Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina” has to be a gargantuan task. With its massive length and sprawling narratives, there should be little surprise that most efforts to bring it to life have resulted in a mixed bag of quality. Where does the latest adaptation of the novel fall? Somewhere slightly above average.
Trading in a lot of the novel’s politics and stripping it down to a rumination on relationships in nineteenth-century Russia, this adaptation focuses more on the loveless marriage between Anna (Keira Knightly) and the older Karenin (a bearded and balding Jude Law) and the scandal that erupts when an affair between Anna and Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is discovered, and the attempts of landowner Levin to come to grips with his proposal of marriage being rebuffed by Kitty, who is in love with Vronsky.
Director Joe Wright presents “Karenina” with even more style and flair than usual, even for him. Combining the swirling parties he presented in “Pride & Prejudice” and his proclivity for tracking shots (the beach scene in “Atonement” is fantastic), Wright goes all in with his most stylish film to date. Almost the entire film takes place in a playhouse, with characters moving from scene to scene as crew set up the props and furniture. Even exterior locations are entered via the playhouse’s stage. It’s an ingenious way to handle the massive plot that lends an exceptional amount of energy to the film, at least for the first half. The catch with so much style is it suffocates all but the largest of performances. Nuance can’t survive in a film like this, which is why the only performance of note is Matthew Macfadyen’s Oblonsky, Anna’s brother an all-around philanderer. “Karenina” just loses steam the more the plot focuses on the ostracizing of Anna from Russia’s social circles. Her torment is smothered by technicality of the film.
In the end, is it even worth it for Anna to have had a fling with Vronsky? Even today, an affair is scandalous when discovered (see Patreus, David), and it’s a life-altering act that can come with more consequences than rewards. Anna certainly doesn’t deserve her fate, but sometimes maybe it’s just better to stay in a bad marriage with Jude Law, even if he does look kind of gross.