Director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightly have teamed together on two lush romantic movies: “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) and “Atonement” (2007.) Once more, they collaborate on the adaptation of a romantic movie based on a famous novel: Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”
This time Wright has decided to try a unique approach to the adaptation. Perhaps to symbolize the decadence of 19th century Imperial Russia, Wright decided to film many of the scenes in a Russian theater. Rather than a traditional approach, using locations like Russian estates, Wright films most of the scenes in the theater. He puts the entire theater to use: including stage, lobby, backstage, and balconies. Wright’s concept may have seemed like a good idea on paper. Despite the fact that some of the individual scenes look good, thanks to Jaqueline Durran’s beautiful costumes, the theater device just doesn’t work. The concept is forced upon the material, and it doesn’t do anything to enhance the storytelling. The most absurd moment is the staging of a horse race in the theater. It makes no sense at all.
The concept transcends physical space. Wright directs the actors to act in a stylized theatrical fashion that just doesn’t work onscreen. When all the actors in the background freeze in place, or move together in a choreographed way, it left me scratching my head, wondering, “What was he thinking?”
I confess that I’ve never read Tolstoy’s novel. I’d be hard-pressed to summarize the plot based on this adaptation, by award-winning British playwright Tom Stoppard. Basically it’s a love triangle. Anna is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), an aristocrat who never smiles. She falls in love with the dashing young military officer, Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson.) At first Karenin is forgiving. However, as Anna is more and more drawn to the charming and handsome Vronsky, Karenin plans to divorce Anna, keeping their young son with him. As you probably know, the story ends in tragedy.
Keira Knightly is a beautiful, talented actress who does as well as she can here. Jude Law is suitably cold as Karenin. The biggest casting error is Taylor-Johnson. He seems much too bland to imagine that a woman would risk everything for him.
It’s unfortunate that this ill-conceived adaptation of Anna Karenina just doesn’t work on any level. Stay home and read the book instead.
Tom Condon, OP