I was very disappointed with this film because I don't think it does Tolstoy's novel any real justice. Yes, Dario Marianelli provides some beautiful music and the film completely deserved its Oscar win for Best Costume Design. I also really enjoyed Matthew MacFadyen and Jude Law's performances. MacFadyen is great fun as Anna's brother Oblonsky and provides some very welcome comic relief, and Jude Law gives a brilliant and very sympathetic performance as Anna's husband Karenin. Period dramas are also likely to enjoy the familiar faces that show up in this film every now and again. Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson, Emily Watson, Holliday Grainger and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery and Thomas Howes all make appearances in this film.
I have huge problems with this film though - one problem being its very theatrical look and feel. Instead of this film being shot on location in Russia the vast majority of Anna Karenina is set in a theatre and is made to look like a stage production. The catwalks serve as streets, sets move and change around, and at times even the way the actors move is theatrical and obviously choreographed. Recently I saw Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby which has a very stylised look and feel to it as well. But whereas the glamour and spectacle of the film actually suited The Great Gatsby's story, it really doesn't work for Anna Karenina. The pretend-stage setting simply doesn't work for the story. It just feels really artsy-fartsy and pretentious! The only scenes that actually benefited from the theatrical setting were the ball scene where Anna and Vronsky dance together and the opera house scene. The rest of the time it was confusing and a constant distraction. This was especially so in the first 15 minutes of the film. The opening scenes move at an absolutely manic pace with the sets changing around constantly as the characters are introduced. It's really not easy to follow and I think I would have been really confused if I hadn't already read the book. Also, the theatre that's used in the film doesn't even look all that nice! It looks really dilapidated!
Another thing that I found massively disappointing about this film is just how much of Tolstoy's story is lost. OK, I know that a film adaptation of Anna Karenina can't possibly include everything from the book otherwise it would be about 15 hours long. It's inevitable that an 800 page novel is going to face a lot of cuts to fit into a two hour film. However the scope of the book is considerably narrowed and that really affected my enjoyment of the film. As anyone who's read Anna Karenina will know, the book is actually just as much about Konstantin Levin as it is about Anna. But that's not the case here. Levin is by far my favourite character in the book and I much prefer his story to Anna's but in this film his character and story barely gets a look-in. I never got the sense that Stoppard actually cared about his character and I'm wondering why he even bothered putting him in at all. The film is far too focused on Anna. We never ever see just how depressed and humiliated Kitty is after she finds out that Vronsky has no intention of proposing to her and her time at the spa town in Germany isn't even mentioned. This was a huge mistake! Not only is that section one of my favourite parts of the book, by not even mentioning Kitty's time in Germany it means that there's no context or explanation for Kitty's scenes with Nikolai Levin. How can this young upper-class woman be so comfortable nursing a dying man whilst his prostitute lover is in the same room?! We never see Levin and Kitty's wedding, we don't see Kitty giving birth, Levin never meets Anna, and Levin's conversion to Christianity at the end feels very sudden and random. Levin's second proposal to Kitty is also done with children's spelling blocks rather than chalk which was a very random change! Even other characters that are more directly connected with Anna suffer in this film as well. It's never mentioned that Anna's affair made Karenin a laughing stock and that it ruined his career. We never see Vronsky shoot himself and we're never told what happens to him after Anna's death. Tolstoy's rich social commentary on Russian life and spirituality is completely lost too.
Now I've come to my third and final problem with the film. Well, you'd hope that since the film is so heavily focused on Anna that the actress playing her would give an amazing performance wouldn't you? Well, Keira Knightley isn't bad but I could never buy her Anna as being the mature, authoritative, passionate, voluptuous, intense, increasingly mentally unstable Anna of the book. I could never buy her Anna as a mother either. Her acting in this film left me completely cold.
So yeah, this film is a huge disappointment and I really didn't like it. I have seen worse book-to-screen adaptations but I've also seen a lot better! This film isn't as good an adaptation as Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice. I absolutely love Tolstoy's novel and this film simply isn't a good adaptation. I was actually quite bored for most of it. I do think that viewers who haven't read the book would be likely to enjoy it more once they've got past the first 15 minutes and have worked out who the characters are but even then I still wouldn't particularly recommend it. This film is only worth a watch for the music, the costumes, and MacFadyen and Law's performances.
Film Certificate Rating: 12