Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of a staid and prim government official (Jude Law) journeys from St. Petersburg to Moscow to convince her brother’s wife Dolly (Kelly McDonald) to forgive Oblonsky (Matthew McFadyen) for his cheating ways. In a cruel twist of fate, it is there that Anna meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and embarks on an affair that will prove dangerous for all involved.
Screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright have taken Tolstoy’s epic story of love and destruction and adapted into a spectacular film. Much of the action begins in a theatre building before spreading out further afield. The design and feel of the film are rich and sumptuous, underlining the decadence of the Russian Empire.
Keira Knightley is good in her role as Anna, she often over acts and drags attention away from the world of the film, but here she is believable and nicely understated. Jude Law gives one of the performances of his career as the gentle and considerate Alexei, and his performances gives the impression that it is this gentleness and acceptance of Anna that drives her into the arms of another man. Aaron Taylor-Johnson preens well on screen, and he certainly seems to enjoy the early segment of the film, where he is the fascinating soldier who enthrals women, as the film goes on, however, Taylor-Johnson has trouble showing the depth of emotion and despair that his affair has caused him.
Matthew McFadyen is light and funny throughout the film, and it is a treat to see him play a less serious role. Kelly McDonald is great as always, but it is Domhnall Gleeson who benefits most from the film. Gleeson plays Levin, a young man rebuffed by the love of his life, in favour of another. His brooding and heartsick performance shows the actors strengths.
Joe Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey created a sumptuous, opulent world for the film. Colour blazes and the decision to set the film in a theatre – which could have easily failed awfully – becomes striking and thrilling. This setting also underlines the fact that everything that Anna does is observed, and her affair creates quite a scandal within St Petersburg society. McGarvey’s cinematography allows the colour palette to shine, and he creates several incredible scenes shot in one take that remind the audience that everything in society is deliberate and choreographed. Scenes that stand out are the horse race that spectacularly takes place within the theatre of Anna’s life, an incredible dance sequence where actors are brought to life by Anna and Vronsky passing them, and the beautiful scene where the theatre is transformed into a still and luscious meadow. This setting is enthralling and beautiful, but at times is feels as though much of the substance and intricacies of the story were sacrificed for the look of the film.
In all, Anna Karenina is a rich, opulent and beautiful film about love, paranoia and disgrace. The film is a visual feast, but at times, the story suffers for the sake of style.