I suppose that scholars might dismiss the 1935 MGM production of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo as superficial, yet that film lingers in my memory, even though I haven’t seen it in years…whereas I couldn’t wait for this new version to end. It comes with impeccable credentials, including a screenplay by the eminent playwright Tom Stoppard and a reteaming of Keira Knightley with her Pride and Prejudice and Atonement director, Joe Wright. Sorry to say, the best laid plans go astray in this handsome but ponderous production.
The film’s greatest failing is in making us feel the anguish of Anna’s doomed relationship with Count Vronsky (played by an ineffectual Aaron Johnson, who is now billing himself as Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The leading man preens and puffs himself up but never gives us reason to empathize with him. Absent that, the story is just a lavishly-costumed charade.
It was Wright who had the idea of staging the story’s establishing scenes (and later linking footage) in a decaying theater. The meaning of this visual metaphor is never made clear, though it captures one’s attention at first. Many of the film’s conceits are similarly opaque, adding nothing except meaningless window dressing. (In the press notes, I learned that members of Russia’s high society in the late 19th century looked to Europe for inspiration in their mode of dress and manner, even lining their ballrooms with mirrors so they could observe themselves. It’s too bad this isn’t made clear in the film itself.)
Keira Knightley does a capable job as Anna, and she is surrounded by talented actors including Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen and Alicia Vikander (the star of A Royal Affair), but without that vital emotional connection, this Anna Karenina lands with a thud.