There have been numerous tries at translating Leo Tolstoy’s classic into film form, and all of them have had the difficult task of condensing what is a lengthy, dramatic, complex and multi-story tome. For its part, Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation bravely tries to do so through an exaggerated and moving stage set, an attempt that is laudable in scale and creativity.
Two of the more experimental aspects that Wright explored related to scene transitioning and melodrama. With regards to transitioning, I felt that Wright largely succeeded. The use of the act of opening doors to reveal a new scene allowed for less blank spaces as the complex story progressed as well as visually stimulating. While I did not find it distracting like other reviews have suggested, I did find that its use steadily declined throughout the movie. It may have been a stylistic move, but it felt more like either lackadaisical or rushed editing nearer the end of the process.
Melodrama, in this case, refers to his use of devices such as slow-motion or characters becoming a part of the scenery and general over-acting. In many ways, it worked. However, this was the part I found took away slightly from the story. Important moments were sometimes reduced to cheap imagery and heavy-handed directing. It came to a point that the storyline became secondary to the directing devices used, including melodramatic scenes. An example of this was how Wright staged the horse race of Count Vronsky or Anna and Vronsky’s meeting at his cousin’s party.
Meanwhile, the performances evened each other out. There were some notable standouts like Jude Law, who embodied the cuckolded Karenin with strength, pain and morality, and Alicia Vikander who made Kitty relatable and cheer-worthy whether she was still a petty, little girl or a grown, deep woman. Keira Knightley did an okay job with the titular character, but while I think she strongly portrayed Anna’s mental breakdown of sorts, she was not so strong in portraying the pre-breakdown Anna who was firstly trapped, and secondly subject to unfathomable societal strains. The journey towards the breakdown was not portrayed as well, whether it be because of the script or because of the acting. On the other end of the spectrum, Aaron Taylor-Johnson was woeful as Count Vronsky, with any and all emotions, no matter how different they are, being portrayed by him with doe-eyes and a little-boy pout. He showed no considerable change whether he was madly in love with Anna or whether that love was breaking in such an intense way.
Nevertheless, this Anna Karenina is a visually-stunning, metaphoric and ambitious film that does justice to the beauty of Leo Tolstoy’s novel but is let down by some poor performances and an over-reliance on glitzy, glamorous filmmaking to take the place of solid dialogue and character development. I recommend it for people who love the novel for a fresh take on its visualization and also for people who are interested in experimental and risky filmmaking.