I’m not big on costume dramas. Thankfully, Anna Karenina is more approachable than most, and actually winds up being one of the few costume dramas that didn’t bore me for the majority of its running time. The main reason for this is that the B-story winds up playing out completely contrary to what’s expected of the genre, and has a polar opposite payoff to what you’d generally think should happen. It’s refreshing to see, and simply on a narrative level, it makes Anna Karenina stand out.
Let’s back up a few steps here. If you’re not familiar with this type of costume drama, here’s how the generally play out: A woman and her husband, or husband-to-be, aren’t really as fond as each other as their marriage would indicate. The woman finds someone else, and wants to leave her husband. But, since we’re a couple of centuries in the past, divorce was a much more complicated and damning process. The husband just doesn’t want the social embarrassment — these are all high society types, after all — while the woman just wants love. Something has to break by the end.
That’s precisely how much of Anna Karenina plays out. Keira Knightley plays Anna, a character married to Alexei (Jude Law). She winds up falling in love with one Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), after he stalks her for the better part of the first hour of the movie. The film might be based on a novel written in 1877, but it’s a film adaptation further reinforcing the recently concluded Twilight‘s message that stalking someone will eventually get them to love you. You know, just in case someone hadn’t figured that out yet.
However, the secondary story has a man named Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) attempting to woo a woman named Kitty (Alicia Vikander). He’s single, she’s single — no marriage vows are being broken here — and their love feels far more real than anything that happens in the arbitrary main story. If the focus of the film was on them, instead of having them as more of an afterthought, it possibly could have been the best of its genre.
That’s not the case, so for most of our time we have to trudge through the predictable and boring main story involving the affair, the cover-up, and the lack of passion from everyone involved. Vronsky is suave, but he doesn’t appear to have human emotions. Anna seems to think of this more as something to be done to kill time, not because it’s real love. Alexei cares only about his social status, not about his wife or his marriage — at least, for the most part. It’s just how these things are.
It becomes even harder to get a read on these characters when they swap motivations and feelings with the change of a scene. It seriously feels as if every action is done based just on how a character might feel at the moment — which changes often, rarely with cause — and without any consideration given to the past or future; it’s all “here and now,” and considering how much time is spent talking about things that could happen, it doesn’t make any sense why the actions would disregard and contradict what the characters are saying.
There are some visual flourishes that directer Joe Wright uses to make Anna Karenina have a unique look. Many of the scenes are set on a stage, with stationary backgrounds that can mold into something more later on, or be raised to reveal something more. Sometimes, characters freeze in place while Anna moves about them; there’s a fantastic dancing scene in which Anna and Vronsky dance around a ballroom, and everyone is frozen in place until they are passed by the couple, at which point they begin to move. It looks great, and there’s some definite eye-candy here.
I feel there was a missed opportunity here. The literal staging doesn’t happen all the time, and at first it seemed like it was going to be done just to indicate when certain characters were “acting” for the purpose of the surrounding cast. This could have been done to great effect to reflect their emotional state. It seemed to me to be random whenever this would occur, and the characters are so inconsistent that I couldn’t figure out if this was ever even attempted.
The sets and costumes are wonderful, I’ll grant you, and they help lend some authenticity and immersion to the picture — even though Anna Karenina takes place in Russia with Russian character but everyone’s speaking in English with various British accents. Costume dramas almost always look good, and this one is no exception. You feel like you’re taken back in time, which is something that this type of film does wonderfully.
Look: It’s a costume drama about the upper class in the late 1800s. You pretty much know what you’re getting into before it even starts. And, for the most part, you’re right. There are some things that are done in an attempt to spice it up — a fun secondary story and some visual panache, for the most part, do a good job at this — but it’s still just a costume drama even underneath all of this fun. It’s a good version of one, I’ll admit, and I got into the film once it got started, but if this isn’t your thing, Anna Karenina won’t change your mind.