After numerous incarnations in film, theater, television, opera, and radio, Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” has become one of the most heavily adapted novels of all time. Unless somebody can do something really original with the material, there isn’t much need to revisit “Anna Karenina” again. The latest version from director Joe Wright makes a few attempts to reinvent the exhausted story, such as setting a majority of the narrative in a theater house. While this direction is ambitious, it still doesn’t make the material particularly fresh. If anything, Wright’s distracting staging customarily makes the whole film feel overblown and pretentious. Much like Lars von Trier’s stagy “Dogville” from almost 10 years ago, Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is too self-righteous and in love with itself for the audience to love it back.
In her third collaboration with Wright, Keira Knightley plays the aristocratic Anna, who is unsatisfied with her marriage to Jude Law’s Alexei Karenin. Lonely and confused, Anna finds herself in the arms of Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. From this, forbidden love, burning desires, jealousy, and tragedy naturally ensue. But this is all old news if you’ve already read “Anna Karenina” or seen another incarnation.
There’s no denying that Knightley is a wonderful young actress. She gave one of her best performances earlier this year as a happy-go-lucky free spirit in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” After “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “The Duchess,” and three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies though, maybe it’s time for her to give the period pieces a break. Knightley’s melodramatic portrayal of Anna Karenina should be a wake-up call for her to hang up the corsets for a while. But that’s more than can be said about Law’s performance as Alexei, failing to give the character a shred of personality. At times one might even think the usually charismatic Law was replaced by a sophisticated robot look alike incapable of conveying emotion.
At the very least, “Anna Karenina” does give us plenty of attractive images to look at. Sarah Greenwood, one of the best production designers in the business, fashions several gorgeously detailed sets. Jacqueline Durran’s wardrobe of exquisite late 19th century attire seems like a lock for a Best Costume Design Oscar.
But it’s hard to appreciate the stylish eye-candy when Wright’s hyper, in-your-face staging keeps taking us out of the experience. An overblown musical score from Dario Marianelli doesn’t help.
If you’re familiar with the “Anna Karenina” story, there’s really nothing new here worth your time. If the content is undiscovered territory for you, then this is not the best version to start off with. For all its faults though, this interpretation of “Anna Karenina” could have been much worse. It could have been a modern day reimagining filled with pop songs, Miley Cyrus, and a happy ending.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.