Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Tom Stoppard
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson
Looking back upon literary works shows a continual pattern of different fates that come to men and women when it comes to being selfish. The end results seem to be stark where the men get the opportunity for redemption and the women typically meet an untimely end. Anna Karenina follows that trend, but the film does so in such a lavish style, as it calls up the only person who could take on a period piece of this stature.
After helping her brother after his recent infidelity, Anna (Keira Knightley) meets the young and handsome Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). While Vronsky has her eyes set on Anna, the young princess, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) seeks the affection of Vronsky while Kostya (Domhnall Gleeson) seeks her affection. This carousel of love complicates all of their relationships and begins to tarnish their social standing.
It’s no secret that this film is quite the behemoth in page number and the intricate relationships that govern the story. Doing justice to a 200-page novel can be challenging considering the difference in medium but Anna Karenina lands at more than 4x that amount. Add in a tremendous cast and a director who can craft beautiful historical drama and you have a very good adaptation that takes an interesting twist in its storytelling.
The uniqueness of its storytelling comes from the story taking place on what appears to be a stage. While the characters in the film traverse, as it would be their world, we as an audience see the transitions and different segments as if we were in a theater. The set changes and different movements can be quite jarring in the beginning but I bought into the artistic attempt. It also helps that the production and costume design of the feature borders on flawless. Whether it be the snowy conversation by the train or the extravagant halls, it immerses you into that period in Russia. The costumes define the aspirations of the characters. The way they dress says more about their character than their actions do.
It goes without saying but Keira Knightly delivered once again. She still holds the crown as the queen of period pieces and this would not be the first time with director Joe Wright. They have collaborated before in Pride and Prejudice along with Atonement. In my book, they have not slipped up once when working together as this film also succeeds. The rest of this impressive cast shined with the moments they were given. That includes Jude Law, Matthew Macfayden, Kelly Macdonald, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, and Dohmnall Gleeson. Each of them provides strong work as they represent love in their different facets whether it be infidelity or of the purest kind.
Thematically, Anna Karenina becomes a prime example of the idea of how men and women are punished for their actions. Anna and her brother Stiva (Matthew Macfayden) display just that. The story begins with the revelation that Stiva has been tossed out for being unfaithful to his wife, where Anna uses her charm to help him get back to good graces. Stiva gets the opportunity to return to prominence and into the hands of his wife, even when he displays moments of selfishness. Conversely, Anna falls into the arms of another man and discovers her true feelings about her husband. That leads to her life becoming a complete shambles, as she must contend with the possibility of losing her son. The contrasting fates of Anna and Stiva says plenty about women in literature and that trend of promiscuousness leading to abject unhappiness for them. You can probably deduce what happens in the end without me specifically spoiling it.
Incredibly glamorous and showy, Anna Karenina lives up to the epic story that it adapted even when it lost the intentions of Tolstoy at times. It made up for it in the way it presented the story. It made everything feel fantastical and audacious in a way that differentiates it from many other literary adaptations. Its uniqueness remains its strength, which makes up for not living up completely to the arduous task it needed to complete. Still, a film to enjoy and experience because when Keira Knightley steps into a period piece, you know she’s about to deliver the goods and she succeeds once again.