Anna Karenina (Knightley) has settled quite happily into the safety and luxury of marriage to a respected St Petersburg aristocrat by the name of Alexei Karenin (Law) – a steely, stoic man with watery eyes and thinning hair. But on a visit to Moscow to save her brother’s marriage, she meets the youthful and charming Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). Their first meeting is marred by the tragic death of a railway worker, but there is no mistaking what has passed between them… they are in love. Forced into exile by a society that cannot accept their forbidden tryst, Anna and Vronsky find themselves alone, shackled together and tumbling headlong towards tragedy. There can be no peace for them, only misery and greatest happiness.
Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece is a wonderfully theatrical affair. Scene transitions involve magical, clunking, mechanical sets and hordes of sooty stagehands in period garments. Many scenes that should take place in streets or restaurants actually take place in the atriums, hallways, and rafters of a gigantic Russian theatre. Sometimes a scene appears to be on location, but suddenly a wall pulls away and we find ourselves back beneath the hulking proscenium arch.
Wright’s stylish vision successfully evokes the theatrical nature of late 19th Century Russian aristocracy in a new and exciting way. But the story relies too heavily on this visual treat for pace and energy. The flashy modern aesthetic – part Fosse, part Gondry, part Brecht – cannot be relied upon to update the tattered subject matter. What relevance does Tolstoy’s story of forbidden love have at a time when our heir apparent has married his (alleged) mistress without so much as a raised eyebrow? How much more important are films like Shame that deal with the consumptive, addictive nature of lust in a modern society where every need is catered for, and nothing is out of bounds?
That aside, there are also the usual pitfalls of reducing a 900 page tome into a modern feature film. Tolstoy’s novel is timeless because of the minutiae; Wright’s film is over a century out of date because it is forced to deal in generalisations. Characters are half-etched, dialogue over simplified, entire story strands overlooked. The cast can hardly be blamed for failing to mark their characters with anything approaching real emotion (with the exception of Domhnall Gleeson whose performance as Levin is breathtaking).
We are left with an entertaining but hollow story filled with entertaining but hollow characters. By the end, you’ll feel as though you’ve just left one of St Petersburg’s many large social gatherings: so many people you desperately wanted to meet, but as the carriages arrive you’re left with nothing but a procession of strangers and ghosts, known by name but nothing else.