This latest adaptation of Anna Karenina for the big screen, with screenplay by Tom Stoppard and imaginatively directed by Joe Wright, is a stunningly visual epic which although loses something of the depth of Tolstoy’s novel makes up for it in its sheer lavish production. Strangely enough the strongest performance comes from a prematurely aged Jude Law as the cuckolded husband Alexei Karenin who actually manages to capture a great deal of the pathos and strength of the character he is portraying. Aaron Taylor Johnson and Keira Knightley, despite all the time stood still moments and attempts at sensuality, come across as vain, conceited and more than a little shallow. It is irrelevant however as it is the film itself, rather than any individual performance, which is the strongest thing on show here.
For those unfamiliar with the Tolstoy tale the story tells the tale of Anna (Knightley) whose society marriage to Alexei is stuck in the rut and ceremony of Russian marriage. All this changes however on a trip wherein she has a chance meeting with Count Vronsky (Johnson) and her passson and lust are re-ignited as he relentlessly pursues her. An affair follows culminating in a pregnancy but bound by the shackles of her position and her sex- like that other great literary cuckold and adultress Madame Bovary- she has to choose between her position and being cast aside from the society she is so entrenched in.
Swept away with emotion she follows her heart-tellingly at one point she is referred to as having not broken any laws but merely the rules- and tries to start a new life with Vronsky. Society will not let her forget and feeling that by becoming Vronsky’s unofficial official partner she has created a vacancy for mistress her paranoia, insecurity and uncertainty subsequently overwhelm her along with a burgeoning morphine addiction. Eventually the situation becomes untenable and she ends her life by throwing herself under a train.
The cleverness in this production lies on the fact it is presented quite blatantly as a theatrical piece. Thus stages are set and presented as stages and likewise we see the backstage manoeuvrings shifting everything into its proper place. This acts as a metaphor for the staged society-with its positioning and various regalia- it sets out to represent.
However neither Anna nor Vronsky’s characters are well developed enough for us to feel any sympathy or empathy for them. Only Karenin is afforded any emotional depth and Law gives a strong empathetic performance which allows us to understand both the pain and strength brought about by his emotional state. Kronsky seems to spend the first half of the film making meaningful overstated entrances-all swashbuckling swagger, poise and flickering ignited eyes- and Johnson is very good at this but capable of so much more. Knightley is perhaps the most disappointing as she simpers and looks on the verge of tears frequently but is consistently framed to highlight her beauty.
Perhaps the best scene is one in which Anna’s use of her fan at the races is used to create the sense of her galloping heart alongside the galloping horses. Other scenes are equally impressive and for any fans of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago this film is a must see.
Despite it’s flaws-mainly the lack of character depth- I must admit I really enjoyed the production and got swept away in the drama of it all. It is worth seeing for the sheer lavish sumptuousness and the irresistible need to comment on just how old Jude Law is looking these days.