¨Anna isn’t a criminal, but she broke the rules! ¨
After the success Joe Wright had last year with his thriller Hannah, he now returns to doing what made him famous: adapting well known romantic period pieces. His collaboration with Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice put him in the map. They teamed up again for Atonement with equal success, and now they got together for the third time for the adaptation of Leo Tolstoy´s famous novel. They say that the third time is the charm, but I found this to be their weakest collaboration together despite its four Oscar nominations (Cinematography, Costume Design, Original Score, and Production Design). Wright has had success in the past with these period pieces always receiving nominations for his work in the technical department. This film is a triumph visually with a great production and costume design representing 19th century Imperialistic Russia. The performances are pretty much alright but no one really stands out here. The film is shot in an experimental way as the narrative seems to be taking place in a theater where actors come in and out of different sets through the stage. It strikes you odd at first, but later you get used to this approach which in a way works because the characters in this story are viewed through a lens in society in a similar way as we view actors performing plays on stage. It was an interesting and original way to make the film in my opinion, but I don’t know if it worked for everyone. The main issue I had with this film is that it was so focused on the beautiful exterior designs that the narrative and characters seemed to lack depth and humanity. Several issues were left out of Tolstoy´s novel, but it’s understandable considering Wright put more emphasis on the relationships than on socio-political ideologies.
The story is set in Imperialistic Russia during the late 19th century focusing on aristocratic families. Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), an aristocrat who is married to a senior government official named Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) who is twenty years older than her, decides to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow to visit her brother, Stiva (Matthew MacFadyen) and convince his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive him for being unfaithful to her in order to calm the turmoil that his affair stirred up in Moscow society. Stiva is a womanizer, but Anna convinces Dolly to forgive him and stay with him. Dolly´s beautiful sister, Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander), invites Anna to a ball where she expects Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), a cavalry officer to propose to her. In the meantime a childhood friend of Stiva´s, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) a passionate but shy landowner who lives in the country, has come to propose to Kitty as well. Kitty is in love with Vronsky so she politely refuses to marry Levin and he returns to the countryside. During the ball, Vronsky and Anna seem to instantly feel attracted towards each other and Vronsky completely ignores Kitty by choosing Anna as his dance partner instead of her. This is when Kitty realizes that Vronsky has never been in love with her, and Anna having such a strong attraction for Vronsky decides to return home to her husband and son before more damage is done. This is just the beginning for Anna´s moral troubles as, Vronsky takes the same train back to Petersburg and confesses his love to her. The two soon share a passionate affair, which Russian society will not forgive.
It must be hard to adapt what is considered to be one of the best novels of all time into a screenplay; and that difficult task was left to Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love). I think that several elements from the novel didn’t translate very well, especially if the viewer wasn’t familiar with the novel. However the story is still so rich and powerful that the film works, although the characters don’t have enough depth as in the novel. Despite the difficulty in adapting the novel I feel the movie did succeed in some ways and makes this film worth the watch. Fans of period pieces will be delighted with the exquisite attention to the costume and production designs. They will also fall for this love affair, a story that has transcended time and space. Despite living in a very different society now, I feel that through paparazzi and gossip magazines we still kind of remain obsessed and judgmental towards Hollywood stars private lives in a similar way as ancient societies gossiped about aristocratic life. I do have to admit that as beautiful as the film might look, it does feel like it is missing a beat to it and will leave you a bit indifferent towards the end.