Keira Knightly has always been quite a cold and distanced actress, never quite able to draw you in to her psyche to make you truly empathise with the character she plays. So perhaps she was the perfect choice to play the eponymous heroine of Leo Tolstoy’s tragic Romance Anna Karenina in Joe Wright’s adaption; a woman who falls in love with another man whilst married to someone she doesn’t hold feelings for. Wright (previously directed Hanna, Atonement and Pride and Prejudice) seems comfortable in his choice of cast and he has every right to be, as every single performance in the film works terrifically well in capturing the tale of affairs and lovers in Imperial Russia.
However, the film is by no means perfect. Director Joe Wright shows his visual flair off in ways which are truly astounding; he is known for his use of very long extended shots such as in Atonement and Hanna, yet here he places the story in the setting of a play in strange ways. It is as if the characters are the actors in their own lives; perhaps hinting at the idea of a society constantly trying to appear outwardly different to what it is in its confines. At times the style felt a little too unusual and in some ways alienating, but more often than not it fitted in perfectly with the ideas that the film explored.
Artistically the film works on so many levels, as not only are the costumes and sets designed to an exquisite level of detail and beauty but the camera really captures everything so vividly that I found it hard to tear my eyes away. In particular it captured the young couple falling in love in such detail, every stroke of their hands was brought to the foreground by emphasising the scraping of their skin against one another’s, the extreme close ups and following of their every movement whilst dancing really made you feel like you were drawn into the relationship yourself.
Despite this, I really felt disappointed by the second half of the film. It had reached a satisfying conclusion but then languished for another 40 minutes by dragging along. Perhaps it is just the nature of Tolstoy’s novel which doesn’t end in the conventional way, but I think it is more likely the director’s handling of the source novel. Wright seems to be able to capture the danger of the couple falling in love and the passion they feel for each other, but fails to truly convey the unravelling of their relationship because of the issues of guilt and truth. It may be because Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) isn’t quite capable of what’s being asked of him as Knightley’s lover or because the film becomes somewhat diluted towards the end as we splinter off into another couple’s blossoming relationship. Nevertheless, there really is a lot worth seeing in Anna Karenina. The cast is wonderful (in particular Jude Law, Kelly McDonald and the incredible Alicia Vikander, an up and coming star I’d wager), and there are some truly spellbinding scenes; but when push comes to shove, it just doesn’t deliver a rousing enough finale to make it really stand out.
Anna Karenina is out now in Limited Release.
Rights; Studio Canal & Working Title Films