Review: Anna Karenina

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: A nineteenth-century Russian socialite, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), becomes a pariah when she leaves her husband- Alexei (Jude Law) for a dashing young soldier- Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson).

REVIEW: When I heard Joe Wright was directing this, the upteenth adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, I initially wasn’t all that excited. The story has been done to death, but- after last year’s HANNA, which boasted some of the most elaborately staged set-pieces of the year, I was intrigued to see what Wright’s approach would be.

Indeed, Joe Wright’s ANNA KARENINA is unlike any other version of the story. Wright, in a genius move, has the film unfold almost like a play, with him confining almost the entire film (minus some exteriors) to a single sound-stage. For much of the film, we see scenery being changed as the characters move in highly stylized fashion, with huge chunks of the film unfolding as if they were choreographed musical numbers. People do costume changes on screen, we occasionally see stage lights, and at one point the musicians scoring the film even appear on screen playing their instruments. It’s all tremendously exciting- giving Wright’s ANNA KARENINA a visceral impact it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Along with the staging, the pace of the film is positively breakneck throughout the first half. I couldn’t believe how quickly it was moving- with some incredible set pieces, including the lavish ball where Vronsky and Karenina first scandalize Russian high society by passionately dancing together, and an ingeniously shot horse-race, the mechanics of which I won’t spoil here.

But- there’s a wrinkle. While the first two-thirds of the film are imaginative, for some reason Wright slows the pace down to a crawl in the last section, and abandons a lot of techniques he used to tell the story, with scenes unfolding slower. As such, it started to feel conventional, which was a let-down.

However, even when it was conventional, the film still worked. The performances are pretty perfect, with Keira Knightley making the ideal Karenina, capturing both the repressed eroticism and the tragedy of the character. Aaron Johnson is also very effective as the brash Vronsky, with him coming across as less boyish than he has previously. Jude Law, a la ROAD TO PERDITION deglamorizes himself significantly to play Knightley’s middle-aged husband, and in a departure from previous adaptation, his character is depicted as eminently sympathetic.

Supporting these three is a virtual who’s who of British character actors, including Matthew Macfadyen as the cartoonish Oblonsky, and a frumped-up Kelly McDonald as his put-upon wife. However, the film is all but stolen by Domhnall Gleesonas the lovesick Levin (and possible Tolstoy surrogate). The son of Brendan Gleeson, this role firmly establishes him as a leading man to watch, and his affair with the initially impetuous Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is one of the best parts of the film.

So- while I wish Wright had stuck to his guns, and avoided going down a more conventional path in the last third, I still thoroughly enjoyed his adaptation of ANNA KARENINA. While it’s certainly not to everyone’s taste, if you have a hankering for period drama, this is for you.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.