Keira Knightley, Aaron Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew MacFadyen, Emily Watson, Kelly MacDonald
Leo Tolstoy, Tom Stoppard
Much like a good majority of my ex-girlfriends, Anna Karenina is a beautiful mess. I couldn't stop watching it, but ultimately I knew it would never satisfy me.
The truth is simple. Anna Karenina is a boldly constructed and beautiful film that very nearly collapses because the story becomes a muddled mess and the central characters have about as much chemistry as, well, me and my ex-girlfriends.
I feel rather badly for director Joe Wright, who has previously proven quite good at adapting this kind of material but who has become far too dependent upon Keira Knightley, an actress of limited range who is holding this film back almost as much as does Aaron Johnson. Wright has an obviously extraordinary vision for this film, almost unfathomably setting a good majority of the action in a theater.
I suppose we should be grateful that Wright wasn't tempted to follow recent trends in cinema and turn Tolstoy's 800-page novel into a trilogy.
If I have to tell you who Knightley plays, then you should stop reading right about now. You clearly won't be able to follow this film one iota. Jude Law, serving up the only performance of substance here, is her husband Karenin while Aaron Taylor-Johnson placidly plays Count Vronsky.
If you believe for one moment, given these two performances, that any woman in her right mind would consider even playing Scrabble with Count Vronsky while leaving Karenin in the wings then you may very well be the true target audience for this film.
The film looks and sounds like a Joe Wright film along the lines of Atonement, with D.P. Seamus McGarvey's lensing capturing all the story's grittiness while layering on the story's heightened drama. Dario Marinelli, whose Atonement original score won the Oscar, plays cleverly here by weaving his own epic waltzes into the fabric of Tchaikovsky and other classical composers. In fact, virtually every aspect of Anna Karenina's production looks and feels and sounds exactly as it should.
The biggest problem is simply that Wright and his screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, try to do way too much within the framework of one film and end up diluting the film's impact. Matthew MacFadyen's appearance as Anna's brother is effective yet far too brief, while Kelly MacDonald is largely wasted as Anna's oft-abused sister-in-law. Virtually everyone else in the supporting cast is wasted, as well.
Ultimately, however, it all comes back to the almost painful weakness of Wright's leading players Knightley, who Wright has used in Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is simply miscast here and standing opposite Jude Law it couldn't possibly be more obvious.
Fans of Tolstoy's novel will likely find moments to enjoy here and will most certainly enjoy the bold and unique vision set forth for the film. It's just difficult to fathom that at some point, Wright wasn't sitting down watching the dailies and muttering to himself "What went wrong?"
Far from a disaster, Anna Karenina is also far from the high quality period entertainment we've come to expect from Joe Wright. Displaying her limited emotional range in much the same way she did in Never Let Me Go, Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson make me want to sit down and watch me some Liz & Dick for some real romance.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic