Retro Movie Review: 'Anna Karenina' (2012)

The stage itself vies for the spotlight in Joe Wright's unique adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's legendary novel. It is this strange and slightly off-putting approach to adapting the well-known tale that overwhelms an intimate storyline filled with lies, lust, love, loyalty, and betrayal.

All are topics, usually dealt with behind closed doors, only bleeding through to the spectacle of society when scandal paves the way for its ruinous entry. It is here that Wright fastidiously delves into the world of gossip and those who generate it by literally letting the film unfold in a theater.

Told as a sort of play, audiences are transported to the real world in another storyline, where its outdoor locations provide a welcomed contrast to the gloomy theatrics of the stage. The film's oppressive setting feels like an attempt to help audiences sympathize with the confined existence of its story’s namesake, and one of fiction’s all-time most selfish protagonists: Anna Karenina. The problem is Anna appears to live quite a free existence.

Set in 19th-century Russia, Anna (Keira Knightley) is the wife of the imperial minister (Jude Law) and mother of their young son. She has the best of everything, including a loving family. Starting the story on a sympathetic note, she leaves St. Petersburg to visit her brother in Moscow.

She does so in the hopes of helping his family recover from the fallout of his infidelity. While a calming presence to her sister-in-law and a uniting force for her brother's family, Anna cannot do or be the same agent for her own.

Character Poster for 'Anna Karenina' starring Keira Knightley
[Image by Focus Features]
Catching the eye of and sharing a dance with cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) gives way to a dalliance, powerful enough to make her sacrifice her relationship with her own family. As high society learns of the scandal, Anna faces a flurry of reactions to her infidelity and her response to them fuels a downward spiral on steroids. 

It is not entirely clear if the story is blaming society for Anna’s downfall. How they play into her decision-making is questionable. She clearly acts without their scorn in mind or rather in spite of it.

She is torn at times, though determined to go through with dismantling her marriage. She cares for what she wants and disregards the heartache that imposes on others.

She falls into shallow lust with Vronsky for whom she casts aside her family and in a telling show of his character, he supports her doing so. Vronsky acts with his own agenda in mind and finds a kindred spirit in the equally self-involved, Anna.

Anna does not value her loyal husband, a good man with whom she has no grounds for a realistic quarrel. Using vivid and dreamlike lighting, Joe Wright simulates Anna’s infatuation and exaggerated reality when it comes to her feelings for Vronsky. 

While Keira Knightley expertly portrays Anna’s growing paranoia and alarming unease in her trust that Vronsky reciprocates her feelings. Knowing that cheating is what brought them together, she is aware that it could just as easily tear them apart.

It is this ominous thread that threatens to unravel Anna’s mind and Knightley captures it all in a richly expressive performance. As Anna, Knightley is truly magnificent.

She does not let a single scene slip through her fingers, enthralling even when Anna’s behavior is revolting. It is a turn that spares no emotion and maintains Anna as a dimensional figure.

[Image by Focus Features]
As Count Alexei, the bewildered husband dealing with his wife’s betrayal, Jude Law gives a heartbreaking turn as the man Anna slowly tears apart, yet never down. Law is equal parts dignified and exasperated, while never losing sight of Alexei’s inner turmoil at what to do regarding his circumstances.

The rest of the ensemble follows suit with cogent turns. In only her third film, Alicia Vikander proves to be a standout as Princess Kitty. Her scenes opposite Domhnall Gleeson are especially endearing as the two play the story’s only glimpse of a true love shared between a couple. Gleeson gives a brave turn devoid of his usual upbeat charms, opting for a graver approach that shows off his range. 

In a decadent world there can only be decedent downfalls and “Anna Karenina” chronicles a major one. It is not society's spotlight that blinds Anna, it is something far more dimly lit by popular culture, though equally blinding in its intensity.

As Tolstoy similarly illustrates with Natasha in "War and Peace," it masquerades as "love" when its true name is another four-letter "L" word. It is hard to recognize but as “Anna Karenina” so excellently demonstrates, it is a corrosive imposter that leaves nothing left of its host.

Rating: 7.5/10

[Featured Image by Focus Features]