Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is an outstanding adaptation of the Wikipedia plot synopsis of Tolstoy’s classic epic. It is a beautifully shot and beautifully constructed perfume ad that happens to follow the plot of Anna Karenina. This is a shame, really, because all of the ingredients should have made a classic. It is a visual triumph and the use of the stage as a narrative device is a very clever way of compressing a lot of material (the edition of Anna Karenina I read was 862 pages long) into a short timeframe.
Unfortunately, it is compressed to the extent that every single character is an empty, underwritten sack. Keira Knightly is solid as Anna and does as much as she can without a lot of substance. Matthew Macfadyen is irritating as Oblonsky and Domhnall Gleeson is miscast as Levin, the greatest casualty in this adaptation. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jude Law are the shining lights. The former, rocking a killer moustache and dressed resplendently like a creamy vanilla cupcake, captures Vronsky’s shift from grand-standing youth to vulnerable, naïve little boy, whilst the latter injects a cold defiance into jilted-husband, Karenin.
Cleverness aside, Tom Stoppard’s screenplay tries to fit too much in and pages of passionate dialogue become empty one-liners. This means that instead of characters that make rational decisions, we have cardboard cut-outs doing things that make no sense. Anna’s decision to jump under the train seems like a brain-snap made on a whim, not the product of forty pages of exquisitely written angst.
Anna Karenina deserved filmmakers with the balls to make a five hour movie. This film is such an ambitious endeavor, but it lacks ambition where it needs it most. Wright has created a narcissistic arsehole of a movie that delights in admiring how attractive it is whilst ignoring its impotence.