The curtain of the stage goes up and the show begins. With the backdrop of a distinctive Russian tune, we are introduced to the key characters of Leo Tolstoy’s infamous novel that move in a delicately choreographed gestures, almost like a dance performance. Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), a beautiful aristocrat and the wife of an influential statesman Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), visits Moscow in order to fix the marriage of her brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen) that is on the brink of a breakdown due to his infidelity. Ironically, it is here that she has a fateful encounter with a dashing officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whom she falls passionately in love with and later drives to her own ultimate ruin.
When considering the film by itself, one cannot fail to comment on its cinematic beauty. Its lush colours – rich in deep cobalt blue, dark scarlet, dazzling white and sombre black – not only reflect the affluent society of Imperial Russia but enhances Anna’s lure and her seductive power on everyone who lays eyes on her.
The strength of the film lies in its portrayal of Anna, whose passion is awakened but who is faced with much unhappiness. The scenes where her extramarital affair causes scandal and disdain in society is superbly done, fully exploiting the theatrical device used throughout the film. The exaggerated hushes and gasps as Anna walks into a room, everything freezing except the nervously fluttering fans of the ladies present, exquisitely brings out the isolation Anna experiences.
Overshadowed by the presence of this starlet are characters who are equally significant in the original book. Jude Law fantastically captures the cold, mechanical husband that inspires such repulsion in Anna, whilst Alicia Vikander’s performance as Kitty deserves much more limelight than credited. Her journey from a frivolous young girl to mature woman as she is jilted by her former lover Vronsky, who leaves her in pursuit of Anna, is immaculately captured.
The see-saw like architecture of the book that alternates between Anna/Vronsky and Kitty/Levin – where one couple finds God-like happiness while the others’ deteriorates with jealousy and vice – is completely absent in the film and the relationship of Kitty and Levin is reduced to nothing more than subordinate.
It is truly a shame that so much of the gems of the novel are lost amidst the film’s fancy theatrical tricks. The pivotal moments and the inner transformation of Karenin’s forgiveness of Anna, Levin’s recognition of the divine being, as well as the insight into Anna’s psyche that leads her to destruction is completely overlooked. What appears to be a highly stylised adaptation at a first glance turns out to be a disappointing fancy gimmick that does nothing in favour of the greatest novels ever written.