If you are dazzled by beauty, daring, and creativity, I think you will like the new cinematic stab at “Anna Karenina.” While I looked forward to seeing this, the weight of the earlier performances of both Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh seemed too much for the frail little shoulders of Keira Knightley. How could she compare?
First, let me say that reading this book in high school was NOT a happy experience. It was just so long, and all of the artifice of Imperial Russian society seemed so – well – artificial. Why couldn't the characters just say what they mean? Ah, youth…… And so Director Joe Wright’s challenge: not only to squeeze this hulking epic story of intertwined relationships into an approximate 2-hour story, but to make it look and feel fresh. I am happy to report that he has succeeded. Another straightforward retelling of Anna’s story would have been just so boring, no matter how gorgeously filmed. Instead Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have elected to frame this story of the human heart so chained to the artifice and hypocrisy of society with the proscenium arch of the stage. It is bold, it is daring and it is gorgeous. And – it just feels right.
Well, we all know how it ends (Anna, the train and all that), but the characterizations offer some thrills:
Keira Knightley as Anna
Unlike the dignified beauties, Garbo and Leigh, Knightley is an artless, even coltish young woman playing the part of a respectable married lady. She seems content with her priggish husband and clearly adores her young son, but when the outlandish beauty of Count Vronsky is placed before her, she is consumed by an uncontrollable and feverish passion that ultimately wrecks her life. She tries so hard to live by the rules, but the rule of desire is just too much for her. She is, after all, so young.
Jude Law as Karenin
This is my favorite performance in the film. I hated this character in the book, and played by both Basil Rathbone and Ralph Richardson (in the Garbo and Leigh version), he is a cold-hearted prig. Jude Law (almost unrecognizable) plays the deceived husband with compassion. Yes, he's a bore, but he loves Anna and is heart-broken by her deceit. I felt sorry for him - something I never felt for this character when reading the book or watching the other film versions of the story.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vroksky
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is so outlandishly pretty as Anna's lover, Count Vronsky, that I found myself chuckling in order to relive the discomfort of such beauty in a masculine form. He is discomforting, not to mention callow, thoughtless and selfish. He is disturbing. Based on her wardrobe and accessories, Anna loves beautiful things. How could she not want to possess this jewel?
The film also gives time to the Levin/Kitty romance, which balances the destructive love of Anna and Vronsky.
Was it perfect? Probably not. But, it dazzled my eyes and thrilled my imagination and that's why I love the movies.