The result is less of a complete film and more of simply an impressive directorial achievement.
Ambition is an admirable and important quality for a filmmaker to possess. Without it, we would never have gotten A Trip to the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Avatar. Though being ambitious can be rewarding for both the director and the audience, it can occasionally obfuscate the story and distract from the film’s emotional core. While Joe Wright deserves praise for the undertaking necessary to realize the vision he had for Anna Karenina, the result is less of a complete film and more of simply an impressive directorial achievement.
Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina is an epic story of love and honor set against the rigid expectations of 19th century Russian social conventions. The film’s screenplay, which was adapted by the brilliantly talented Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), has excised much of Tolstoy’s musings and criticism of class and politics and focuses predominantly on the passions of several key characters. Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is married to the stuffy, yet devoted Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a government official whose loyalty to his country is unquestioned. Her complacent lifestyle is interrupted when she meets the handsome young cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose intensity is too alluring to ignore.
As Anna and Vronsky enter into a dangerously flirtatious relationship, we also watch as Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) confesses his love for Kitty Shcherbatsky (Alicia Vikander), but is rebuffed because she also has eyes for Vronsky. When Kitty realizes Anna has stolen Vronsky’s heart and attention, she falls into a melancholic state. Anna and Vronsky continue to push the boundaries of what is allowable in their highly stringent society, eventually caving to their primal urges and diving headfirst into a full affair with little regard for the resultant shunning from their friends and acquaintances. The fallout from their choice is not as minor as they would have expected and sets them on a course neither could foresee.
As a director, Wright has made some of the most spectacularly beautiful films of the last decade. Atonement is a masterpiece of storytelling and cinematic gusto, and is one of the rare films enjoyable to watch with the volume turned off. With Anna Karenina, Wright does something few filmmakers would have had the inventiveness to conjure. To reflect the society in which the characters live their lives, where everyone’s business is fair game for others to gossip about and criticize, Wright chose to set the majority of the film within the walls of a gigantic theater. Every character is performing the way the rest of “decent” society expects them to, so why not set them on a literal stage for the whole world to see?
While the production design is magnificent and the moving set pieces are breathtaking, the novelty of what Wright has done proves to be too distracting for the viewer to fully immerse him- or herself in the story. The constant reminder of the film’s artifice adds even greater distance between the audience and the story’s emotional core, so it becomes nearly impossible to connect with any of the characters. This is very unfortunate, because Wright has clearly gambled greatly with his vision, and the failure may prevent him from trying anything truly innovative again in the future.
There is no arguing, though, that every other aspect of the film is wonderful. The costumes are outstanding and the level of detail in every inch of the countless sets is almost dizzying to behold. In a technical sense, the film is a resounding success, but a film must have more than just great aesthetic value. It must have, at its center, characters and a story we care about. The way in which they are presented should be a secondary concern and should not drive the narrative. | Matthew Newlin