Review originally published September 7, 2012 as part of Film.com’s coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
Dance scenes are something of a specialty for director Joe Wright. His previous work, "Pride and Prejudice," features elegantly rendered cinematic soirees, and "Anna Karenina" follows right along in its footsteps. Frozen dancers fade into the background, Keira Knightley's visage shining brightly in the foreground. Sadly, these scenes play much better in the former literary adaptation, as "Pride and Prejudice" was a slow burn ... that blossomed into a lovely romance. Not so much for "Anna Karenina," a film that tries twice as hard and feels about four times as long. Though often visually striking, the story never fully takes off, leaving one of the greatest novelized tragedies of the past two centuries entirely bereft of an emotional connection on the big screen.
For those not familiar with the source material, which has been called "the greatest novel ever written," the film commences in Imperial Russia during the 1870s. There's been a mite bit of wee adultery, and Anna Karenina (Knightley) has been summoned to provincial Moscow to salve some familial wounds. She's from high-powered St. Petersburg, where her husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) is an influential statesman. The opening ten minutes of "Anna Karenina" are fairly light-hearted, strutting and preening, a false note that doesn't portend what's to follow.
Things become intriguing in Moscow for Karenina when Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson) decides he must have her, hubby and child be damned. Anna is largely up for it, though the likely outcome seems to be only misery and remorse. Give Russian scribes this; they know how to wallow in the sadness reaped from poor decision-making abilities.
Broad themes present themselves when considering "Anna Karenina," the facile nature of lust versus love, the impetuous and rash decisions of the flesh, and one's duty to spouse and country. And are crazier people just naturally more attractive? The very notion of forgiveness is roundly prodded and poked, much to the chagrin of poor Mr. Karenin. The joy of the "chase" gets its fair share of screen time too, and the verdict seems to be that illicit love is all the more delightful for its roundly expected heartbreak.
Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, there were far too many themes for a two-hour film to broach. Unfortunately, "Anna Karenina" never hits any sort of stride where the narrative arc is concerned. The dark side of love is ruminated upon, sure, but there's never any real payoff. The film faces the dilemma of a thousand book adaptations before it - it's too small in scale to offer the epic rewards of the written word, but too large on-screen to hide from its glaring shortcomings. Solid visual moments aren't enough to sustain an audience, and Joe Wright's visual style isn't enough to salvage gaping wounds in the story.
"Anna Karenina" ends up in the ditch, like anyone who has loved and lost, as the perception of desire's perfection smacks right up against the eventual realization of adoration's flaws. To its detriment, the film is largely slung together in a co-mingled joyless ball ... until all that's left is regret.