Anna Karenina Directed by: Joe Wright Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins Rating: R Release Date: November 16, 2012
PLOT: Aristocrat Anna Karenina (Knightley) is married to a Russian statesman (Law) and begins an affair a Calvary officer (Taylor-Johnson).
WHO'S IT FOR? Those hoping for a dazzling period piece will be inconsistently satisfied. Outsiders to the Anna Karenina story will be compelled more by the style than the soapy plot.
Though missing a sequence in which Anna levels up by earning "The power of self respect," Anna Karenina blasts through its first act like if it were a period prequel to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (in fact, Anna Karenina vs. The World doesn't sound like such an inappropriate title). In the beginning of this adaptation of a 1,000 page novel, characters zip through dialogue, toy trains are used as establishing shots with quick paced editing, and the concept of seeing life as theater is put to labored use, with a bunch of extremely choreographed sequences with many extras. It's exhilarating aesthetic work that will disrupt the souls of many dead geezer directors. These are great scenes, using Wright's passion for hugely coordinated long takes, which made for impressive sequences in Atonement and even The Soloist. Some sequences are so thoroughly achieved that they might be some of the finest individual scenes in movies this year.
But, either because Tolstoy's disapproving ghost started to haunt him, or the writers' supply of Mt. Dew ran dry, as the script resumes its stuffy position as a plainly melodramatic period piece, with its exhilarating staging losing its pep, becoming an extremely dedicated reference to the cliche that "life's a stage." The lushness of Anna Karenina's production design is evident throughout, but the dedicated spirit is in spots. Anna Karenina is truly an inconsistently spectacular film.
In the movie's title role, Keira Knightley plays the part like an old pro, which isn't that far of a claim. Especially for Wright, she has played desirable women from literary works (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), and this role certainly fits into her previous requirements. When the melodramatic moments in Anna Karenina call for it, Knightley is there to at least prevent the scene from complete dullness, her natural poise a welcome contribution. Thus, it is most interesting to see her playful, or young and in love — though her scenes with Taylor-Johnson can be aggravating, they do bring out some of the intriguing playful insecurities of her character, without her having to crash and burn through emotions.
The casting of Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky is an instant mistake. Adorned with a hipster mustache that would inspire an infamous essay in the New York Times by Christy Wampole and a smug douchiness that seems too close to the actor's heart, this Vronsky doesn't offer us anything but tediousness with such a character. Whereas his "opponent," played by Law (more on him below) presents a curiosity about what is driving his decisions with Anna, Taylor-Johnson is not deep enough to provide anything of the sort. Vronksy is just a womanizing tool. And unfortunately, the story settles too much on this character, making for an overwhelming amount of moments in which Anna and Count Vronsky exchange, creating chemistry that is nearly wholly zest-less.
Coming with the same unexpected force of Hugh Grant in Cloud Atlas, Jude Law is surprisingly good here as Anna's drab politician husband. Law adds compelling force to this character's desperate stoicism, looking to control his wife just as he does his Russia. In such a stern position, Law has a nice sharpness, especially when he interacts with Anna with such quick delivery, but a dull expression. Of all the performers in this movie, Law might stand in the end as its most surprising.
The film's most consistent aesthetic pleasure is the score, composed by Dario Marianelli. Anna Karenina has more than a couple lavish waltzes that enhance the immersive qualities of each successful scene, fulfilling the requirement to place us in the period, while also keeping our senses piqued. Aside from some of the stagings, Marianelli's melodies might be the most valuable thing to take away from the entire Anna Karenina experience.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10