The tragic love story of Anna Karenina is a classic piece of literature by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. The promotion of the period drama had been tempting me for some time. Aside from the trailers and incredible imagery the involvement of Joe Wright as director and a powerful ensemble cast meant the ingredients were all in place. All we needed to do was start the orchestra and see where this Russian rail journey would take us.
Our story finds a young woman in 19th-century Russian aristocracy dealing with the dilemma of romance over-commitment, the morality of passion and the value of consequences. It is quite a tail where several characters are faced with life-changing decisions around events that may have seemed inconsequential at the time. Some will act with honour even if for a fleeting moment they are wary in the face of the assault on their values. Others take heed that their selfishness has caused them loss and so seek to pay penance by a life changed.
I’m not sure whether Tolstoy intended to challenge our judgements but this is a superb story that juxtaposes our position with those on the receiving end of our intentions. Tolstoy was known for being a spiritual person with interests across the religious spectrum. One of the best lessons that Anna Karenina teaches us is that empathy and perspective should be the two guardians of passion.
While Joe Wright has previously steered romantic period pieces involving Keira Knightley like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice this new venture has a more unique visual style. In fact, it is one of the most endearing characteristics of the movie. Without giving too much away, the creative scene transitions appear to merge reality with the changing backdrop of a stage performance. The beauty of the sets along with rich velvet and gold colourings give Anna Karenina a majestic visual palette.
The cast is without fault and Keira Knightly continues to be at home in Haute couture and bustled dresses. Jude Law comes into a sense of royalty with a statesman-like performance as Karenina’s husband Karenin. The screen-stealing role however goes to Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s brother Oblonsky. Macfadyen has straddled the void between television and film but in roles like Athos in the Three Musketeers, the Sheriff in Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood and now this role, he must be up for some significant offers in the near future.
Anna Karenina is a beautiful piece of theatre but my feeling is it didn’t connect at a screenplay level. Tolstoy is renowned as a detailed writer. A typical edition of Anna Karenina would go to over 1100 pages and his most famous work of War and Peace would be over 1200 pages. So when you consider that Peter Jackson can make three movies from a 300page work it was always going to be a challenge for screenplay writer Tom Stoppard to compile this drama into the two-hour movie script it became. Rated R in its US release for sex and violence it may be classic literature but it has a target audience of the young and romantically focussed.
Anna Karenina is a visual pleasure and for anyone who already knows the story, it will connect all the dots. Sadly it is a difficult movie to follow for anyone not familiar with the full story. I’m giving Anna Karenina 3 out of 5 popcorns.