Anna Karenina is Beautiful Yet Baffling

Christa Banister

DVD Release Date: February 19, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: November 16, 2012 (limited)
Rating: R (some sexuality and violence)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 130 min.
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen

Leo Tolstoy’s tale of very unhappy families has been unearthed from mothballs yet again, so one can’t help but giving props to director Joe Wright (Atonement) for taking a, shall we say, unique approach to such familiar material.

Of course, whether these risks actually pay off is another matter entirely. After more than two-and-a-half hours at the theater and plenty of post-screenplay pondering, it’s still a mystery to this reviewer what exactly Wright was hoping to accomplish by employing such a gimmicky plot device.

Yes, in case you haven’t already heard, this isn’t a straight reenactment of the grim Russian morality tale. Rather, the filmmakers decided to tell the story as if it happened on an actual stage with actors, stage cues, the whole lot.

Perhaps taking the idea of the world being a stage literally is genius... and it just escaped me somehow. No doubt, Wright has created a sumptuous world that’s easy to get lost in. If a film’s success or lack thereof was measured merely in style points, Wright’s work would be the stuff of Oscar glory.

Not only are Anna Karenina’s elaborate costumes, extravagant furs and eye-popping jewels the ultimate personification of the privileged life she clearly leads, but this is the sort of film where serious attention is paid to the tiniest of details. We see the way raindrops slowly trickle off a leaf, the spectacle of a ripped piece of paper cascading into snowflakes, the subtle yet strictly forbidden glances that kickstarted this whole mess into gear. It’s all very, very beautiful and yet thoroughly baffling at the same time.

Sadly, what’s lost in translation from the stage is a sense of emotional connectedness with these characters. While it’s been said that members of Russian society back in this particular time period always behaved like they were, well, acting, it’s virtually impossible to feel anything substantial about Anna because we never really got to know her. Sure, Keira Knightley (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) plays the part of loving her adorable son well, and we totally get why her marriage to a dull bureaucrat, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) isn’t thriving, but it’s difficult empathizing with someone when the camera shows us nothing but how spectacular her hair looks in pin curls.

Unlike Tolstoy’s masterful, complex novel, which is probably far better suited for a mini-series than a singular film anyway, the characters in this big-screen adaptation are all very one-note. It’s the stuff of pure soap opera kitsch, and even if you didn’t read the book in high school, you know exactly how it’s all going to end. Not well.

While certainly less caffeinated than a Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) production, Anna Karenina is a very busy affair (no pun intended). There’s so much going on visually that sometimes you forget what you’re watching, supposedly a story about the very high price of cheating on your spouse at a time where women were nothing more than property.

Knightly, teamed again with her director from 2005's Pride & Prejudice, definitely looks the part, but there are moments when she looks like she's part of the world's longest photo shoot. In a rather limited role as the scorned husband who struggles to forgive Anna, Law fares much better because you ultimately forget it’s him altogether.

Still, it was going to take a lot more than great acting to elevate Anna Karenina from being all style and little substance. As wondrous as everything is on the surface, it’s basically as hollow as one of those chalky chocolate bunnies on Easter. If you choose to go out of curiosity at the plot device or for the opulence of the scenery, keep your expectations low.


  • Violence: A close-up of a bloodied, badly hurt corpse. Some fighting. A character commits suicide.
  • Language/Profanity: A couple of milder profanities like as- and da--, but very little in the way of profanity, especially for an R-rated film.
  • Sex/Nudity: Women are referred to as sluts and whores on several occasions, and adultery is practically a character in the film. Plenty of discussion of infidelity, and the implications on various characters’ marriages. We see Anna and Count Vronsky in the throes of lovemaking on several occasions. Shot in a dream-like way, we don’t see much but kissing and embracing, but their expressions add plenty of realism to the proceedings. There’s also a scene where we see Vronsky’s backside while cuddling with Anna. A shot of a rather odd looking contraception device.
  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking and occasional public drunkenness depicted. Some smoking.
  • Religion: Karenin is adamant about taking marriage vows seriously, that breaking them is sinning against God. There’s an ongoing theme about forgiving your spouse, even if they cheat, which is something Karenin struggles with.

Christa Banister is an author and full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

Publication date: November 16, 2012