Based on Tolstoy’s novel about Anna Karenina, the wife who took a lover (Count Vronsky played by Aaron Taylor Johnston) and the scandal it caused. Jude Law plays the cuckolded husband Alexei Karenin. There are social occasions like dance halls and horse races and journeys to and from country villas. Domhnall Gleeson plays Levin, a precursor of the socialist revolutionaries into peasant mysticism. His brother is an anti capitalist and forerunner of the Bolsheviks. There is another love affair between Levin and Kitty. Anna’s affair ends tragically of course, caught between marriage and love.
I have not read the book and sometimes I wonder if we should only read a book in its own language, reading it in English can be like looking at the back of a tapestry. The film has theatrical settings interspersed with real outdoor scenes. I tend to find this distracting, why not make it completely stylized or completely realistic? When someone opens a stylized door I wonder ‘what next ?’, and this diverts attention from the character. The assignment of reality or theatrical stylization to events seem arbitrary. Why is a horse race indoors and the slums of Moscow attached to the fancifulness of a theatre? When the dancers freeze in their movements, I felt I was watching an advert for perfume or chocolate. In spite of this I was absorbed by Keira Knightly’s performance as Anna. When she is ostracized as the ‘adulterous’ woman in the theatre her panic through the accusing isolating stares is well done. This is the one scene where the theatrical setting really works (after all it does take place in a concert hall). The artificiality of all the high class customs suddenly closes in nightmarishly. This is all of course a familiar story of the 19th century, from Madame Bovary to the doomed lovers in the film Elvira Madigan. In costume dramas on this subject we expect from our heroine either defiance or submissive reconciliation, but Knightly steers between these, her emotions coming at you from a sudden angle. She has been ctiticized for having only a couple of expressions, so what if each expression hints of different emotional outpourings. She can be sociable and then prickly as when, in the way of the exasperated Ibsen wife, she gets angry at her obtuse husband’s bone clicking habit.
The cuckolded husband is played by Jude Law and here he no longer looks glamorous as in other films, he looks sadly ordinary. Law plays the ‘wronged’ husband well and his self pitying sense of ‘betrayal’ only makes Anna all the more sympathetic. Law conveys well the vindictiveness that can hide behind humanitarian rhetoric. As for Vronsky, he’s a lightweight. The actor looks like Eric Idle (from Monty Python) in fancy dress. He is vain and self regarding who doesn’t or can’t help Anna when social stigmatism sticks. Domhnall Gleeson is suitably tortured as the idealist in love with ideals and a woman. In contrast to the theatricality, we see him haymaking with the peasants. I would have preferred a bigger budget journey round Russia but Knightly is absorbing.