Better than I expected was my first reaction to this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic doorstop Anna Karenina. Director Joe Wright has swapped emotional resonance and character building for impressive visuals and set design, and in doing so has created a perfectly enjoyable period drama. What he hasn’t done is fully realised a Russian classic.
Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is the wife of respected government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). On a visit to her brother’s family in Moscow, she unexpectedly enters into an affair with rich aristocrat Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). At the same time socialite Kity (Alicia Vikander) is pursued by young idealist Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).
Joe Wright gives the tale a theatrical setting, akin to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge but without the songs. In doing so, he wholeheartedly embraces a Tsarist aristocratic aesthetic, with lavish set design, eye-catching costumes and first-rate choreography. The lovely, pouting Keira Knightley portrays a melodramatic Anna well, while Jude Law is superbly understated as Alexei Karenin. Domhnall Gleeson and Matthew Macfadyen also put in fine supporting performances.
Unfortunately the theatrical setting also distances the viewer and diminishes the impact of what should be a highly emotive tale. The important links between the Anna/Vronsky and Levin/Kity storylines are skirted over, while Taylor-Johnson is badly cast as Count Vronsky, resulting in an unconvincing central romance with Keira Knightley.
These problems result in an enjoyable but at times less than convincing, lightweight adaptation. Anna Karenina features good performances and looks fantastic, but ultimately it flatters to deceive; this character-driven drama feels like it has sacrificed character development for the glitz and glamour of its stage design.