Anna Karenina, a costume drama set in late 19th century Russia, is perhaps the most approachable of director Joe Wright’s films. It marks his third collaboration with Keira Knightley, who previously starred in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. For Anna Karenina, he adapts Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name. Like other films in the genre, it’s long, emotionally vapid, predictable right up to the end and really good looking. Essentially, it’s everything that audiences hope for in a costume drama about an affair in upper class society.
That’s often the problem with these types of films: the only real issues that characters face are affairs and the potential shunning from their peers. Any other conflicts that they might face are rarely mentioned. The woman is usually the one to leave her husband or husband-to-be for another man, while the husband often doesn’t care much about his wife and is only concerned with preventing a scene that would lower his social status. Knightley plays the titular Anna Karenina, wife of Alexei (Jude Law), who soon finds herself caught up in an affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The love Vronsky feels for her isn’t initially returned, but after he follows her around Russia for a while, she soon finds herself infatuated with him. If there is anyone out there that hasn’t gotten tired of the ‘stalking equals love’ message from Twilight, here’s another film for you.
The story follows the exact generic route that one can expect from this type of film. The stodgy husband tries to hold it all together and the free-spirited woman wants to stay with her lover, with this conflict playing out until the end of the film when a permanent choice has to be made. The supporting cast has to find out about the affair and make a decision whether to shun or accept the decision that Anna makes, and that’s about all the story has to offer. One interesting part of Anna Karenina is that there’s a B-story that’s almost completely contrary to the main one. Domhnall Gleeson plays a man named Konstantin, whose main goal is to woo Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Here, it’s the man making all of the major decisions, and the payoff is completely different from what is expected. If there is a way Anna Karenina’s story separates itself from other costume dramas, it’s here.
The other interesting and uncommon thing that Anna Karenina does is set many of its scenes on a stage, as if the characters are performing a play. It allows for some unique transitions, some enjoyable framing techniques and a unique visual style. The symbolic use of a stage could have also given additional insight into the characters, but the audience learns so little about them on a single viewing.
Most costume dramas are going to look great, and Anna Karenina is no exception. The cinematography is gorgeous, the costumes look authentic, stylish and impressive, and the characters all act in ways that make you believe you’re in Russia in the late 19th century — assuming you can buy into the fact that they’re speaking English with various British accents, of course. This type of film needs to immerse its audience, especially when it’s as slow-paced as this one. It works well enough in this regard, even if it doesn’t stand out.
The film is functional, approachable and it does enough in some areas to separate it from the pack, but it’s still just a costume drama. If those aren’t your kind of thing, it’s not going to be worth seeing. However, if you do love costume dramas, Anna Karenina stands out as one of the best examples of the genre.