Director Joe Wright’s take on Tolstoy’s tragic love story, Anna Karenina, is bound to divide opinion, particularly after watching the initially distracting theatrical element of a film set within theatre set changes. Those who favour classic Russian epics, like the days of Doctor Zhivago, may well have envisaged this in grander, more realistic settings. Admittedly, it does take a moment to settle at the very beginning and to accept the hustle and bustle going on in almost ‘claustrophobic’ and tweet surroundings. However, this merely further establishes the growing psychological effect on its lead character.

Adapted by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard, Tolstoy’s story is an exploration of the power of love and how it affects a supposedly happily married woman, Anna (Keira Knightley), when she encounters the full effects of raw lust then emotion on her happiness and her marriage, rocking her world in late-19th-century Russian high society.

Wright’s film is undeniably a bold, visually genius and powerfully emotional take that needs investment from the start to accept its unusual format. However, the period drama and exquisite costume beautifully compliment the entertaining blend of imagination, frank wit and highbrow theatrics delivered by an intriguing ensemble cast.

This film is the third time Wright has turned to his ‘muse’, Knightley to deliver a dichotomy of the strong and fragile female who is exposed in a man’s world of rules and etiquette. Like or loathe the actress, this kind of role is absolutely made for Knightley: she shines on screen, even in the most torrid moments of the story, changing from porcelain doll radiance one minute to demonic creature the next, all as her character’s hormones rage.

The only time the British actress might be held back in her endeavours is as a result of her pairing with Nowhere Boy actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson who plays her love interest, Count Vronsky. However, ‘pained’ and doe-eyed he tries to be, there is more than the odd stale moment in his delivery opposite the illuminating Knightley, when you wish he would just let forth in the passionate role, making you question his suitability.

In fact, some of the most powerful scenes are between Knightley and an almost unrecognisable Jude Law, playing Anna’s stiff bureaucratic husband Alexei Karenin. Law is a delight to watch in this reserved mode as he still manages to channel some pent-up emotion into the situation, making his casting one of the most intriguing. Another gem is Knightley’s Pride & Prejudice co-star Matthew Macfadyen, camping it up and have a ball as Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky, and bringing a lively spirit to the behind-the-scenes setting.

Wright’s lavish theatrical interpretation punctuated with stark wit could be accused of distancing the viewer from Tolstoy’s stoic written word. But at the same time as the sets are rapidly moved around, it could be argued that the director’s Anna Karenina is a vibrant, modern, fast-paced version that does not dwell on on-location settings as in the past, but ironically, within all the momentum, directly focuses our attention on the characters front of stage so we feel their emotion raging forth. It’s certainly a unique blend of theatre and film with that necessary ingredient for period drama fans of unashamed melodrama in spades, making it gripping cinema in its entirety.


Previous articleThe Possession – Review
Next articleLooper Review
Fierce film reviewer and former BFI staffer, Lisa is partial to any Jack Nicholson flick. She also masquerades as a broadcast journalist, waiting for the day she can use her Criminology & Criminal Justice-trained mind like a female Cracker.
  • ella

    Lovely review!

  • Caro

    Matthew Macfadyen is an amazing actor

  • Deborah

    Even in the trailers, I found Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of Count Vronsky insipid thus making me wonder if the movie will hang together. He does not seem suitably charismatic or powerful to captivate Anna. I am a huge fan of Matthew MacFayden so I found out about the making of this film quite a while ago.and eagerly await it coming to my area. I anticipate his performance as well as Knightly’s and that of Jude Law to be brilliant.

  • Guest

    I have also seen positive reviews on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance. I’ve noticed, however, that critics are now seeming eager to jump on the negative bandwagon about him and say he’s “out of his depth” maybe because the first few reviews mentioned it and they feel like they have to as well. I have a hard time believing he was that bad because Joe Wright wouldn’t have had him in the film, and I’m sure Aaron did exactly what Joe wanted. I love Jude Law too, but let’s face it, Aaron had a much difficult role to fulfill than Jude.

  • An admirer of excellence

    The Emporer’s New Clothes comes to mind after seeing the film and reading this review.