Of all the many literary classics that have graced the silver screen, Anna Karenina is perhaps the most beloved. Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice have been made into features almost as often, but even those pictures don't have the prestige that Anna Karenina does.
If the name Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) were to come up in gossip circles, she would be spoken of highly. She is the young and attractive wife to government officer Karenin (Jude Law). While Karenin loves his wife, he is distant, their marriage is one of convenience. No embers of passion burn when they are together. Her life is not completely lacking in love though, Anna imparts that love to her son.
Yet, some wants just do not go away.
Despite the conventions of society, despite what she knows to be a bad idea, wife and mother Anna has fallen madly in love with Russian officer Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). When they meet at the grand ball, they only have eyes for each other. The romance about to transpire is obvious to everyone, including Anna's husband.
Her cuckolded husband Karenin is not unreasonable in his demand that the two be discreet, but the love that Anna and Vronsky share cannot be repressed.
There is a B story revolves that revolves around Vronsky's spurning of Kitty, who is repeatedly courted by the demure Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), chum of Anna's brother Count Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen). Infidelity, as it seems, is also an issue for the brother battling the same lustful wiles that are plaguing his sister. Levin has none of these faults and he spends his days contemplating the nature of life.
Tolstoy paid equal attention to both Anna and Levin in his novel, but it is easy to understand why a romantic affair would be played up.
Additionally, what separates Anna Karenina from many film adaptations of the classics is Joe Wright's decision to place the proceedings on a theatrical stage. Wright starts off like every other version of the film in Oblonsky's study, but this study is located in the arch of a stagnant theatre. The director never misses an opportunity to flaunt his stylistic choice, yet in doing so he brings more attention to himself than the story.
The staged aspect of Anna Karenina initially has promise, but it removes all of the emotional bonds that Keira Knightley's performance depends on. The strength of Tolstoy's play is the resonance of Anna's raw emotion. She is perhaps, literature's most pitiable figure.
It's easy to get at what Wright's motioning toward: life for the wealthy in 19th Century Russia was a show, but it's too meta for its own good. That the film succeeds at all is due entirely to the tenacity of Keira Knightley.
**1/2 out of ****