If ever there were a Chick Flick shoo in, this should be it. A tragic heroine foolishly throwing off her shackles for a forbidden love, and all wrapped up in really beautiful clothes — not to mention adapted from one of the greatest of all Russian novels. Anna Karenina stars Keira Knightley and is directed by Joe Wright who also made Atonement and Pride and Prejudice with her in the lead. In case you never read the book, the basic story is that Anna is married to a Russian aristocrat and high-ranking civil servant (Jude Law). They have a young son she adores, but a chance meeting with a handsome young army officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), changes her very staid life in every way possible. It is love at first sight, and in late nineteenth century Russian society, even rich women had few rights and a long list of rules they were required to live by. Having a very visible affair was definitely not an option.
You might wonder though why any woman would cheat on Jude Law, but his Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is no romantic. He is older and set in his pretty boring ways, which you see from the beginning are stifling Anna. It is also clear from the outset that affairs are de rigueur for the high society of St. Petersburg, only discretion is key, and Anna and Vronsky are too wrapped up in themselves to notice (or care) that everyone sees what is happening. Anna Karenina is a meditation of the vagaries of relationships and love. Anna’s brother (Matthew MacFadyen) is dealing from the beginning with the repercussions of his own affair, and there is a story thread about the princess who was in love with Vronsky before he met Anna and the man who loves her dearly. The women are the ones who suffer most in this film, because their lives are so dependent on a good marriage and their unsullied reputations. And they are by far the most interesting characters.
Anna Karenina is a gorgeous film to watch. If there is a problem with it, it is that the extremely stylized set design overpowers the narrative. Most of it is played out on a dilapidated stage with panels opening and scenery flying and characters walking up into the rigging, which is confusing at times and might have been a good idea on paper, but tends to feel forced and takes you out of the story as you try to decipher where the characters are exactly. The acting is all top notch, particularly Knightley and surprisingly Law as the tightly wound but low-key cuckold. The adaptation of this 600-900 page (depending on your translation) novel by playwright Tom Stoppard may be trying to include too many stories and the central Anna and Vronsky thread felt somewhat underdeveloped, perhaps because the actor who plays Vronsky is less than charismatic. Nonetheless, I would recommend this film if only to get everyone to read the novel, which I loved. It is one of my favorites and this film hints frequently at its greatness. And it does resonate days after I watched.