Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” is one of my favorite movies of all time, and not just because “Pride and Prejudice” is one of my favorite books of all time. The collaboration between director Joe Wright, cinematographer Roman Osin and leads Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Bennett) and Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy) revitalized this Jane Austen classic. So when I read that Joe Wright was directing an upcoming film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” with Knightley in the title role, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, Wright’s interpretation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is needless and not very good.
In “Anna Karenina,” Anna (Knightley) is an unhappily married Russian socialite. When her brother’s (Matthew Macfayden) marriage is threatened by his infidelity, Anna goes to Moscow so that she can persuade her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive her husband Oblonsky. In Moscow, Anna meets Count Vronsky; a handsome cavalry soldier. Although married to Karenin (Jude Law), Anna begins a love affair with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Their infatuation with one another doesn’t go unnoticed. Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Dolly’s younger sister, is the first to notice their immediate attraction. Kitty is vying for Vronsky’s affection when she turns down a proposal from a wealthy landowner and farmer named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Not surprisingly, tragedy ensues, and Anna Karenina is faced with the decision of leaving her son and reputation behind to pursue a passionate relationship with Vronsky.
Unlike other adaptations, Wright’s film takes place mostly on a stage. He repeatedly knocks the audience over the head with the metaphor that the world is a stage and everyone has a role to play. I’ll give Wright credit for reinventing “Anna Karenina,” but it simply doesn’t work. The stage setting, especially in the beginning, is dizzying. Wright also miscast Knightley in the title role, as well as Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. Neither of the characters are supposed to be particularly likeable, but Knightley and Taylor-Johnson’s performances are unable to garner any sort of sympathy, so when their relationships ends in tragedy, I didn’t feel anything other than relief that the movie was almost over.
However, Wright’s casting of Law as the morally righteous cuckold is inspired, and not just because Law himself was publicly outed as an adulterer. Karenin is a complicated man. He’s not hateful to Anna or their son, but his stoicism leaves much to be desired. In the end, however, Karenin’s ability to forgive Anna and take in her illegitimate child as his own hints at a softer side. Macfayden’s Oblonsky is the complete opposite of his role as Mr. Darcy. In “Anna Karenina,” Macfayden relishes the opportunity to portray an amoral man. He is comical without being despicable.
Morality and reasoning are among the film’s main themes; however, little attention is paid to these themes once Anna and Vronsky have committed adultery. In the end, Wright’s adaptation of “Anna Karenina” has lots to show but possesses little depth, something that 19thcentury aristocratic Russia was known for.