The Coast News Group

Focus on scenery keeps ‘Karenina’ from developing

“Anna Karenina” may, in a literal sense, be artistic to some in a few places, but even a striking visual approach cannot rescue the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel from its weak characterizations, melodramatic acting, confusing narrative and ineffective “staging.” 

Filmmaker Joe Wright certainly does not lack for an attention to detail when it comes to visual realism, given his knowledge of art history and interest in paintings.

This attribute served him well while making some of his early critical successes, such as “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement” and “Hanna.”

What is normally his greatest strength, however, transforms into his greatest weakness in “Anna Karenina.” It’s such a shame to witness this kind of downfall in what was supposed to be a cinematic work of art.

In nineteenth-century Russia, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is the wife of Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a prominent government official. She appears to be satisfied with her high-society lifestyle and unaffectionate marriage until she meets the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

The two of them enter a passionate affair, which soon takes a turn for the worst.

As Karenin’s indecision regarding the divorce proceedings, her own insecurities, and the strict conformity of Russian social norms get the better of her, the once-great aristocrat finds herself losing control to a point where tragedy is the only outcome of her life.

It is one thing to use visuals in conjunction with story and character development to create an engaging film for moviegoers to experience.

That being said, it is another thing to rely on visuals as the primary filmmaking instrument. Let me give you some advice: don’t try it.

Sure, the costumes and architecture possess a plentiful amount of rich colors, but the “staging” environment comes off as distracting; it’s not too difficult to see how much the story and characters are smothered in visual excess. Had the story been told on stage but shot on film, the results might have produced a different response.

I don’t know what was going on in Wright’s head during the making of this film, but his painterly style crosses the line and sacrifices believability in exchange for grandiosity. Another problem lies within the convoluted narrative.

Not once did I detect a sense of balance in the storylines. I think Wright was so focused on capturing the visual aesthetic of the titular character’s world that the utter disregard for the subplots cripples the film’s pacing and consistency.

I really couldn’t bring myself to understand most of the characters’ plights, much less sympathize with them.

I felt the cast members tried too hard in terms of becoming the characters, failing to absorb the essence of their roles in an organic manner. Keira Knightley certainly fits this tragic description. The onscreen stoicism of Jude Law hints at the possibility that he really did not want to sign onto the project in the first place.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson does what he can, but he never fully expresses his character’s feelings. Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander should have been given more; they had potential the director did not utilize.

It pains me to say this, but I’m afraid “Anna Karenina” will not be remembered as an excellent adaptation of Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece. Instead, it will be hung up as a sloppy, suffocating letdown that should not have failed in the first place.

When: Now Playing
Where: Limited Release
Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Rating: R