After stepping into modern times with Hanna and The Soloist, director Joe Wright returns to the past with a distinctive adaptation of Anna Karenina. The film opens with Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfadyen) caught having an affair. While trying to help save her brother’s marriage, Anna (Keira Knightley) inadvertently heads down the path that will destroy her own. She catches the eye of Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and after playing hard to get for the first half of the movie, the two begin a passionate romance. There’s some other stuff involving a farmer and his own love troubles but it really goes nowhere. In fact, everything in the film peters out. I kept waiting for something more to happen. Maybe a twist? But no, it’s all so surprisingly straightforward that it becomes confusingly banal.
Since there isn’t any meat on this story’s bones, Wright does everything he can to polish the hell out of it. The costumes and production design are marvelous creations. Everything up on the screen is bright and glorious to look at. Wright then ups the ante by staging the drama on a faux-stage. “All the world’s a stage” or so someone once said. And it’s not just the sets; the blocking is heightened as well. It’s like a musical without any songs. The film is some strange cross between Doctor Zhivago and Dogville. It’s extravagant and bold and pleasantly distracted me from the rest of the film’s flaws. Alas, the ostentatious storytelling runs out of gas as well. The second hour calms down and isn’t nearly as big, much to the detriment of the movie.
Without grand ballroom scenes or a whooshing camera, what’s left is rather sedate. Anna loves the Count, the Count grows bored with Anna, and Anna’s husband (Jude Law) is far too understanding. The cast is dutiful but the material is dour. Keira Knightly continues to shine under Wright’s direction but she’s stuck with a script that requires her to sulk for half the film. It also doesn’t help that she has zero chemistry with Taylor-Johnson. Most the film hinges on these two characters and their unyielding passion for each other but it’s just not there. An easy reference point is a previous romance from Wright/Knightly, Atonement. Say what you will about the film, but one thing you don’t doubt is how bad McAvoy and Knightly want to hump each other.
This is supposedly a great piece of literature, so I can only assume something was lost in translation. Perhaps I missed a metaphor? As is, I saw little point to the lackluster plotting. The razzle-dazzle was appreciated but when that’s all you’ve got, you haven’t got much.