Anna Karenina is a visual splendour

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
-Leo Tolstoy

In Director Joe Wright’s aesthetically stunning interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, now playing at London's Hyland Cinema, viewers will find themselves awash in a deconstructed stage production. This makes for a stimulating viewing experience. This experience, however, begins to drag in the last third of the film.

Set in the 1870s amongst Russian aristocracy, Anna Karenina tells the story of socialite Anna’s (played superbly by Keira Knightley) passionate affair with the much younger Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Wood). Initially resistant to his attention, Anna succumbs, they run off together, she gives birth to a daughter, and to say all hell breaks loose is euphemistic. It’s that classic combination of adultery and social suicide…and it somehow wreaks havoc on the women protagonists far more than the men.

Married to unflappable government drip Count Karenin (Jude Law), a senior Russian statesman, Anna’s devolution from dutiful wife to awakened lover to shunned, paranoid, and morphine-addled, has all the makings of a solid drama that will leave you questioning the presence of any collective moral compass. We all come to learn that life is generally not fair, but I think this axiom is taken to new heights in Russian tragedies, and Tolstoy is no different. There’s equal parts betrayal, forgiveness, rebirth, death, sex, revenge…and did I mention death?

The film begins with Anna leaving St. Petersburg for Moscow to visit her wayward brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and convince his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), to stay with him in spite of his ‘indiscretions.’ She is successful at this, but also has a chance encounter that will change the course of her life and is witness to an obviously foreboding incident that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The secondary plot that I found equally interesting to the Anna-Vronsky-Karenin triangle is that of Oblonsky’s friend Levin, and his pursuit of the debutante Kitty. While the adults that surround them are making a mess of their lives, Levin and Kitty do the unthinkable…they fall in love. And then they go off and live on a farm. It’s an idyllic break from the drama and their letter block scene is innocent young love at its saccharine best. Moreover, this romance is a pointed juxtaposition to Anna and Vronsky’s increasing selfishness.

It’s also through Levin’s sub-plot that Wright explores Tolstoy’s commentaries on agrarian life versus urban life, and inflects critiques of paperwork and the bureaucrats who make this Kafka-like system tick. In fact, the opening scene provides an interesting thread that is woven throughout this film. Oblonsky comments that “Paperwork is Russia’s soul, farming is just the stomach.” How does one navigate the path between fulfilment and comfort? In this particular depiction of Russian aristocracy, it would appear as though these are not mutually exclusive objectives, nor are they permanent fixtures in one’s life. It’s the soul versus the stomach and it works as a driving allegory in Wright’s treatment of Karenina.

What doesn’t work is the pacing. Any adaptation of a novel of such magnitude is tricky—what elements of the literary original to include or not include will always be up for debate. That said, Wright’s stage play scenes work incredibly well as a commentary on the artifice of society, but without clear delineations, the film can become hard to follow, especially for those not familiar with the story. I found myself wishing that the commitment to this artistic rendition be an all-or-nothing one and that the select few scenes ‘off stage’ provide jarring shifts, rather than fuzzy transitions.

Knightley, Taylor-Wood, and Law are skilled actors whose commitments to their roles keep unfocused scenes moving along. Law’s restraint as the long-suffering, joyless official and husband is particularly good; with each crack of his knuckles I flinched. Knightley’s descent into madness is also believable and completely unrestrained. Finally, Macfadyen’s Oblonsky provided much-needed comic relief to this dour story. He’s a complete cad, and yet I was laughing in spite of myself.

But really, Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is a visual splendour. Shot beautifully, the visual details are awe-inspiring—from the use of mirrors during pointed conversations to the shift in Anna’s veils—this attention to imagery is stunning and makes this creative, ambitious adaptation particularly noteworthy.

Shortly after Anna and Vronksy lay eyes on each other, the young Count predicts that “There can be only misery for us.” He could not be more right. And while this misery is belaboured at times, it could not have been more beautiful to watch.

But then again, who ever said Russian tragedies are concise?

(Out of 4 Stars)

Meg Pirie is a lifelong Londoner who works in communications. Check out her website at She tweets brilliantly @meg_pirie.

The Arts Project - Theatre