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'Anna Karenina' Early Review: Visually Splendid, Audacious, Swoony Epic Romance Heads for Oscars

Thompson on Hollywood By David Gritten | Thompson on Hollywood September 2, 2012 at 7:00PM

The startling new adaptation of Tolstoy’s great novel "Anna Karenina," with Keira Knightley in the title role, is . as visually splendid as any studio epic, even if it plays with audience expectations of what lavish looks like. It’s a respectable adaptation of a huge story, encompassing a wealth of ideas; yet it also has the direct, heartfelt appeal of what Hollywood once called ‘a women’s picture.’

Anna Karenina, set 2

It’s not perfect. There’s a slight loss of pace and intrigue two-thirds of the way through, as Wright’s relentless ingenuity becomes repetitive and a tad exhausting; it reminds you that he was born to parents who ran a puppet theatre.

It’s also fair to say Wright’s shooting style is better suited to scenes set in the urban, sophisticated high society of St. Petersburg than those involving the idealistic farm owner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Yet a lesser film (maybe one commissioned by a studio) might simply have dumped the Levin character. He is, of course, a formal  counterpoint to Oblonksy’s decadence, and he’s the character closest to Tolstoy’s attitudes to faith and fidelity. In truth, though, he’s a little dull.

As for Aaron Johnson, who plays Anna’s lover Vronsky, he looks like a boy sent in to do a man’s job; Johnson can do shallow and spoiled, which Vronsky certainly is, but he’s too callow to portray a character who is after all an experienced cavalry officer.

Still, there is much here to enjoy and appreciate. Wright certainly knows his cinema: in later scenes, as Anna comes to realise the immense personal cost of her infidelity, Wright shoots Knightley almost in the manner of a tragic heroine from some 1940s movie. The ghosts of assertive actresses from that era – Barbara Stanwyck comes to mind – stir faintly.

All in all, it’s a triumph for Stoppard -- and for Wright, who seems to have aimed for a visual equivalent to Anna’s helpless passion, one to overwhelm audiences with lustrous images and dizzying movement. He just about gets away with it.

This article is related to: Reviews, Anna Karenina, Joe Wright, Keira Knightley, Reviews, Venice Film Festival, Festivals, Festivals

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.