Film review | Anna Karenina - Joe Wright gives Tolstoy's love story theatrical dazzle

Anna Karenina - Keira Knightley stars as Anna in Joe Wright

Director Joe Wright reunites with Keira Knightley, his leading lady in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, for another prestigious literary adaptation, but his screen version of Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina is a bold departure from standard costume drama fare.

Far more daring than the makers of such earlier versions of the book as those starring Greta Garbo (1935), Vivien Leigh (1947) and Sophie Marceau (1997), Wright has chosen to frame Tolstoy’s tragic love story of a married Russian woman’s fateful affair with a handsome cavalry officer as if the action unfolding in 1870s Moscow and St Petersburg were taking place within an ornate but decaying 19th-century theatre.

This audacious approach inspires some dazzling visual coups. As Wright’s camera swirls and glides around Knightley’s doomed Anna and her dashing lover, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, the theatre becomes a train station, ice rink, ballroom, opera house and racecourse.

Anna Karenina - Aaron Johnson stars as Count Vronsky and Keira Knightley stars as Anna

The idea behind the conceit is to spotlight the way in which upper-class Russians lived their lives as if continually on show - Anna’s grand passion for Vronsky is fateful precisely because it plays out in public. But Wright’s expressionistic device, which he has superimposed on Tom Stoppard’s deft screenplay, distances the viewer from the characters and runs totally against the grain of Tolstoy’s naturalism. Where the book pulls the reader into the characters’ inner lives, Wright’s film keeps the viewer on the outside.

All the same, Knightley’s wilful, sensual Anna is impressive, as is Jude Law as her stoic, stolid husband (portrayed more sympathetically than in the book). Taylor-Johnson’s callow, shallow Vronsky disappoints, however, and his relative weakness may explain why the story’s secondary love story - between Domhnall Gleeson’s idealistic landowner Levin and Alicia Vikander’s young, naïve Kitty - proves more touching than Anna and Vronsky’s great romance.

This isn’t, then, an Anna Karenina that will leave you sobbing, but thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s virtuosic camerawork, Jacqueline Durran’s sumptuous costumes and Sarah Greenwood’s stunning designs, Wright’s film, though undeniably perverse in its approach, should none the less have you reeling in admiration.

On general release from Friday 7th September.


To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.