Anna Karenina ★★

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been adapted so many times that it is hard to get excited by yet another screen interpretation. However, when it was announced that director, Joe Wright, would break away from the usual period drama in favour of something more experimental my interest was piqued. Unfortunately, whilst the film’s stagebound conceit is at first arresting and entirely appropriate to the rigid and public Russian high-society, it suffocates the life from the heart of this doomed and fragile romance.

Joe Wright is a bold filmmaker who is always looking to demonstrate his skill and scope, even if it can be a detriment to the story. This is particularly true of Anna Karenina where the entire film plays out in the confines of a rundown theatre. It provides the film with a striking hook that helps differentiate it from not only the other adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel but also most other period dramas too. At first it is easy to be dazzled by the film’s artificial construction and bravura touches. The set is nothing short of astounding as it shifts and changes to fit every occasion and location. The heavily choreographed sequences are dazzling and the mannered performances perfectly in keeping with the film’s theatrical and formal conceit.

Yet it doesn’t take long for the film’s aesthetics to not only wear thin but actually stifle the story. For a story about passion within a rigid society it is utterly empty. It’s mannered tone only creates a disconnect between the story and what we are seeing on screen. There is no heart, no sense that Anna would ever be swept off her feet by Vronsky nor why they would continue what they are doing despite knowing they will be excommunicated from society. Part of this problem is down to the film’s style which shows off Wright’s technical ability more than it aids the story, but the performances and poor casting are equally at fault.

Keira Knightley is an actress I always struggle to warm to. She is too mannered and ‘in her head’ ever to truly convince as a person given over by temptation, passion and love. However, the biggest casting mistake comes in the form of her romantic interest, Vronsky. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is frankly terrible. Looking like a backing dancer from an Adam Ant music video, he fails to exude any charisma or even screen presence. He is a complete and utter non-entity creating a great imbalance, not only in the relationship but in the entire film too. At least some of the supporting cast are better: Jude Law is solid as the Anna’s wronged husband whilst Matthew Macfadyen adds some much needed comic relief to proceedings.

Anna Karenina is opulent, intricately designed and visually stimulating but it is frustratingly soulless and dramatically simplistic.