Tackling a seminal work of fiction always presents a filmmaker with a unique set of challenges, even more so than book adaptations in general. For director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard on Anna Karenina, those included not only condensing a mammoth book into a slightly over two-hour movie but doing so in a manner that stood out from the numerous previous adaptations. The result is a mixed bag with many parts to love individually but a whole that simply falls short.
Anna Karenina stars Keira Knightley in the titular role. On a trip to Moscow to help her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) save his marriage–failing from his own marital indiscretions–Anna attracts the attentions of Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Fearful of her own attraction to him, Anna returns home to her husband (Jude Law) in St. Petersburg only to have Vronsky follow her. It is only a matter of time before Anna caves in to Vronsky’s advances and her own passions, with tragic consequences.
Anna Karenina is a heavily stylized film, and while said style is quite visually intriguing (if not downright beautiful) it alas hinders the story. Although not a film about or of a play–a point that should be emphasized–the majority of the picture takes place inside a theatre, not just on the stage, but backstage and in the auditorium. Likewise, the action is quite theatrical and the movement of sets and between sets beautifully fluid and kinetic. The acting, script and cinematography still being traditionally cinematic, what results is almost a theatre/movie hybrid.
The idea behind placing the action in this theatre setting is that the location ties in symbolically to the lies and artifice of the characters. What place is more artificial than the theatre? Those few sequences not shot within the greater theatre environs contrastingly take place outdoors in the country, representative of freedom, openness, life
Anna Karenina becomes a case of director Wright favoring style over substance, with the unfortunate side effect that the style makes it very difficult to maintain a sense of place and time. Coupled with Stoppard’s overly quick moving script, the film feels “fluidly disjointed,” to coin a term. To be fair, the novel is an epic work to be so heavily condensed, but even so the screenplay has other flaws, most notably the dialogue feeling completely our of place with the story and style. On the plus side, the production and costume design are stunning, the cinematography complex, and the actors–particularly Knightley–perform admirably.
Sound and picture of this Blu-ray stand out amongst what is otherwise a fairly standard release. The transfer truly captures the beauty of the production design, while the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 captures every tiny detail of the intricate sound design. Special features, however, leave more to be desired. They include the de rigueur director’s commentary and deleted scenes along with five boringly by-the-book mini-featurettes” “An Epic Story About Love,” “Adapting Tolstoy,” “Keira as Anna,” “On Set with Director Joe Wright,” and “Dressing Anna.” Despite the bland productions, content is at least interesting in “Adapting Tolstoy” (on how they tackled such a complex work and came up with the unique style) and “Dressing Anna” (how the costume design was a combination of 1950’s couture with late 19th-century silhouettes).
Standing head and tail above the other bonus features is “Time-Lapse Photography,” a time-lapse shot of the construction and continual evolution of Anna’s principal set, the theatre.
In summation, Anna Karenina triumphs in style but falls flat as film.