A quick preface before I eviscerate gifted director Joe Wright’s self-indulgent adaptation of genius playwright Tom Stoppard’s artifice-laden take on Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the influence 17th and 18th century female conduct books designed to codify feminine behavior had on the writing of Daniel Defoe’s satirical novel “Moll Flanders.” I don’t mention this just to make me irresistibly sexy to readers but to prove I have nothing against things old, stuffy and full of corsets.
That being said, if someone wants to “Old Yeller” the costume drama genre, I’ll gladly provide the bullet. The very things that make novels about antiquated manners and outdated social mores worth reading are the things that make movies based on them downright unwatchable. What comes across as earnest emotional reflection in print translates into monotonous, overwrought pretense on screen. Anna Karenina is torture praised as brilliant by many who lack the attention span to read the damn book.
Keira Knightley once more feeds her addiction to this unnecessary genre by playing the titular character, who comes across in the screen version as a stupid, petulant whore. Set in late 19th century Russia, the sophistication that makes the novel one of the greatest ever written is (hopefully) unintentionally replaced with the message “women never know what they want, so hopefully they shut up and be good wives.” Central to both the inspired novel and derivative movie is an affair between Anna and Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). If there’s a greater crime than this film’s thesis, it exists on Taylor-Johnson’s upper lip.
Somehow, Vronsky and his creeper-stache get Anna in the sack, cuckolding the saintly Count Karenin (Jude Law). Meanwhile, humble farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) courts Vronsky’s former object of affection, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). That side story actually has a few sweet moments in it but is still framed as a reminder to women that they’re better off marrying the guy they aren’t all that attracted to or in love with because at least he won’t totally screw you over (you’re welcome, ladies).
Wright’s movie looks pretty, largely due to a theatrical aesthetic that makes no sense. Basically, either Wright or Stoppard (my money’s on the latter) decided to present the film as a kind of stage play, with set changes, room for an audience and a curtain. At least, they do that for a while and then forget about it until the end. Still, it’s pleasing to look at while your mind wanders to other things, like how you can totally change out “Anna Karenina” for the words in “Karma Chameleon.”
From Knightley’s overacting to Taylor-Johnson’s vexing follicles, Anna Karenina turns into a test of will, lingering for more than two hours with all the subtlety and nuance of jackhammered pavement. Maybe it’s not the fault of the creative team here. Maybe, just maybe, this is a reminder that costume dramas and most period pieces are often nothing more than pretentious navel-gazing, as the medium of the novel allows a transcendence for this specific type of fiction that film does not allow. As a guy who spent years of my life examining stories like this in novels, I hope you trust me when I say it’s time to stop them on screen.
Grade = D