REVIEW: Stylized 'Karenina' too pretty for its own good
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Emma Stone
Director: Joe Wright
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Rating: R for some sexuality and violence
Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are two of the most notorious fallen women in literature. Karenina is prepared to lose all the advantages of high society in favor of the man she loves. Bovary abandons the man who loves her in an attempt to social climb. As portrayed by Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert, both are devastated by the prices they pay.
These are two of the great roles for many actresses, and irresistible challenges for many filmmakers. There have been 25 film versions of “Anna Karenina,” most famously by Greta Garbo (1927 and 1935) and Vivien Leigh, and nine of “Madame Bovary,” notably by Isabelle Huppert, Jennifer Jones and Pola Negri. Mia Wasikowska will play her next year.
In Joe Wright’s daringly stylized new version of “Anna Karenina,” he returns for the third time to use Keira Knightley as his heroine. She is almost distractingly beautiful here, and elegantly gowned to an improbable degree. One practical reason for that: As much as half of Wright’s film is staged within an actual theater, and uses not only the stage but the boxes and even the main floor (with seats removed) to present the action. We see the actors in the wings, the stage machinery, the trickery with backdrops, horses galloping across in a steeplechase.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage, and we but players on it. Yes, and particularly in Karenina’s case because she fails to realize how true that is. She makes choices that are unacceptable in the high society of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and behaves as if they were invisible. She doesn’t seem to realize the audience is right there and paying close attention. She believes she can flaunt the rules and get away with it.
When we meet her, she is the pretty young wife of the important government minister Karenin (Jude Law). He is affectionate, but dry and remote. The love she lacks for him she lavishes on their 8-year-old son. At the train station to meet Dolly, the wife of her brother, she sees the dashing young officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). For both of them it’s love at first sight. He seems very young, and perhaps not schooled in society’s rules. She should know better.
All society appears at the opera and grand balls (both staged by Wright in the theater), and after Anna and Vronsky meet at a ball, the die is cast. In this film, Wright and his screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, make adequate room for a landowner named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who for Tolstoy was the third major character and certainly the most attractive. Levin represents Tolstoy’s ideas in the novel: He is for abolishing serfdom and has a near-mystical bond with the land and its cultivation. Levin hopes to marry Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who has a crush on Vronsky. But at the ball, Vronsky has eyes only for Anna, and the outcome is happiness for Kitty and Levin.
This is a sumptuous film, extravagantly staged and photographed — perhaps too much so for its own good. There are times when it is not quite clear if we are looking at characters in a story or players on a stage. Productions can sometimes upstage a story, but when the story is as considerable as “Anna Karenina,” that can be a miscalculation.