For anyone who loves a good period drama, Anna Karenina is an unavoidable rite of passage. It is the ultimate story all-consuming, bodice-ripping love affair, complete with ballrooms, gowns and marriage proposals.
The central characters of the Leo Tolstoy’s 1873-7 novel (originally published in instalments) could outwit and out-rival any of the other great literary love stories. In comparison to Anna and her Count Vronsky, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy appear devoid of passion; Catherine and Heathcliff sensible and sane; and the fate of Romeo and Juliet seems somewhat incident-free.
Anna and Vronsky have an “oppressive love” that takes over their entire lives. It is a desperate, intense, self-sacrificing, unsettled, self-conscious and uncertain love.
The parallel love story within the novel could not be more opposite. Levin and Kitty are sensitive, tender, genuine and considerate. Where Anna and Vronsky fall, Levin and Kitty rise above, and they provide the novel with a much-needed reality check whenever Anna and Vronksy become too exhaustively dramatic.
What I loved in Tolstoy’s novel was its willingness to take the reader beyond the rooms of the ladies and into the lives of the men – inside the regiments, the private meetings, and the business deals, where the full opulence of Russian Imperial society is in plain view.
The vodka is flowing, the oysters are in abundance, the weather is unforgiving, and the characters are more cunning and daring than any Austen villain would ever dream – or any Bronte for that matter.
Everything in Anna Karenina is lavish, opulent, decadent and dripping with excess. I suppose it was with this in mind that Joe Wright decided to turn the novel into a full-scale, over-stylised theatrical production.
Each scene of the film takes place on a literal stage, with the camera constantly zooming in and out to reveal landscapes and steeplechases, sitting rooms and boudoirs. The film looks as though it could be the fourth instalment in Baz Luhrmann’s Red Carpet Trilogy with its deep red hues, drawn-back curtains and Moulin Rouge style dancers.
Visually, the colour and style of the film was impressive, but I found it difficult to immerse in the story when its characters were either frozen like statues or popping in and out of the frame like marionettes.
Tolstoy’s novel states:
“The role of a man who attached himself to a married woman and devoted his life to involving her in adultery at all costs, had something beautiful and grand about it and could never be ridiculous.”
I’m afraid to say, that’s exactly what Wright did with this film. He made it look ridiculous.
I wanted to be taken over, and to feel just a fraction of Anna and Vronsky’s desperation to be with each other – but it was difficult to take them seriously when everyone and everything was twirling around like a scene from Strictly Ballroom.
Actually, speaking of ballroom, the dancing scene was the only time that I became completely engrossed in this film. The choreography was incredible. It was entrancing the way the arms of the lovers twirled and entwined, in a beautiful, complicated, swan-like manner.
Keira Knightley was acceptable as Anna, but I feel as if she has done one too many period dramas. Compared with her performance in prior roles such Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, King Arthur and The Duchess, all I could see that was different in Anna Karenina were the unruly curls in her hair.
Aaron Johnston did pull me in as Vronsky – those blonde curls next to a sky blue coat that brought out the same colour in his eyes was all very dapper. And Jude Law was barely recognisable as the snivelling Karenin.
The size of Tolstoy’s epic novel can be intimidating, but all I can say is pick it up and give it a go. The chapters are short and digestible and before you know it, you will be hooked.
There is so much in Anna Karenina that is superfluous – the excessive farming, and the politics, and the intellectualisations – which, thankfully, Wright saved us from. However, there was one essential part of the story that I felt was missing.
Essentially, Tolstoy’s novel is about the meaning of life – and equally, the lack of meaning in life. There are constantly questions of existence and purpose, existence and purpose, as Anna and Levin and Vronsky and even Karenin struggle to understand the meaning of their own existence.
In the film, all that we are offered is Anna’s selfishness and insanity, without even a glimpse of what happens to Vronksy in the end. When the credits rolled, it all seemed rather pointless really.
How does the film rate? 3/5
How does the film rate as an adaptation? 3/5
Total score: 6/10
Book or Big Screen? Book