Film review: Beautiful Visuals Dominate Latest ‘Anna Karenina’

There have been several films that have worked to present the story of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina over the years, including perhaps the most-lauded adaptation in 1935 with Greta Garbo and Fredric March directed by University of Tennessee alum Clarence Brown. Each time moviemakers have tried to present the sweep of 19th Century Imperial Russia while focusing on the intimate connection between the doomed Anna and her lover Vronsky.

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) says in production notes for his take on Tolstoy’s lengthy tale – it’s not as long as his “War and Peace” but it’s not far behind – that it basically boils down to the notion that “Everybody is trying in some way to learn to love.”

Okay, even though what Anna (played by Keira Knightley, who has seemingly become to Wright what Tilda Swinton was to Derek Jarman) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Nowhere Boy and The Illusionist) really have going between them is lust. Love doesn’t injure others the way Anna hurts her faithful husband Karenin (Jude Law in a middle-aged character role) or their young son (Oskar McNamara).

And long before she meets that final train we know this spoiled young socialite is throwing everything away for an immature and self-absorbed guy. I wouldn’t mind spending less time with them and more with others in Tolstoy’s sprawling story.

Perhaps Wright and screenwriter (and legendary playwright) Tom Stoppard are symphathetic to that position because happily we do get some quality time with Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, the son of actor Brendan Gleeson who was one of the Weasleys in the Harry Potter series but also sports a fine theater resume) and Kitty (promising young Swedish actor Alicia Vikander), whose feelings for each other – and those around them – can definitely be said to include the selfless consideration of love.

Stoppard’s script is excellent, balancing the need to present the social, personal and political spheres of Tolstoy’s work (in admittedly but unavoidably abridged form) while keeping the storyline from bogging down. And Wright’s pacing is pretty swift for a movie that clocks in about 10 minutes past two hours; it’s fair to say we hurtle through this Anna Karenina.

The performances are strong, though Knightley plays Anna’s frozen-beauty note more often than necessary. Taylor-Johnson, Law, Gleeson and Vikander come across better; it’s also a terrific piece for Matthew Macfadyen (Spooks) as Anna’s philandering brother Oblonsky and Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire) as his long-suffering wife Dolly.

But Wright’s film is dominated by beautiful visuals. Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) certainly provides his deft touches as director of photography, but it’s production designer Sarah Greenwood that I’m primarily thinking of when making that assessment (Jacqueline Durran’s splendid costumes are certainly a good assist, incidentally).

Moscow and St. Petersburg unfold in what appears to be a large theater. Scenic flats, painted backdrops and catwalks that rapidly move in and out of shots stand in for everything from tea rooms and ballrooms to boudoirs and race courses.

The huge and ever-changing theater set was built on C Stage at Shepperton Studios in England. The idea, according to the film’s production notes, is that the theater levels indicate a character’s social standing – for instance, in the race sequence, those playing the upper classes are higher up and those portraying working-class people are at or below stage level. The race does point out the limitations of this film’s stagey approach, though, since it was impractical to have live horses and riders racing across the set (a second unit filmed them elsewhere and Editor Melanie Ann Oliver placed them into the scene).

Basically, the theatrical framing plays up the artifice of life in Anna’s social set, while peasants working in the countryside beside the noble Levin are among those placed in natural surroundings. It certainly is a refreshing way to look at this oft-told tale, but despite the positive contributions of the actors, Stoppard and others one wonders if this Anna Karenina will be better known for its look than for its story.

Anna Karenina ( opens in Nashville today at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, 3815 Green Hills Village Dr. ( Rated R for some sexuality and violence, 130 min. Directed by Joe Wright; written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Ruth Wilson, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson.


*Photos by Laurie Sparham courtesy Focus Features.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (