Anna Karenina

Nov 26, 2012

A new and exciting way to experience an old story.

Anna Karenina
Grade: A-
Director: Joe Wright (Hanna)
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) from Leo Tolstoy novel
Cast: Keira Knightly (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), Jude Law (Hugo)
Rating: R
Runtime: 130 min.
by John DeSando

“Anna isn't a criminal, but she broke the rules!” Countess Nordston (Alexandra Roach)

It’s not your David Lean Dr. Zhivago although the grand themes of suppression, struggle, rebellion, and redemption are present, just not as grandly.  In Anna Karenina director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard have reduced the scale of this epic adultery to a stage where sets roll by but scenes can be outside as well. In some ways it reminds me of the impressionistic, theatrical way Baz Luhrmann upended Moulin Rouge. This Anna is a new and exciting way to experience the well-known story. 

But most of all it is tricked out to a Chekhovian scale of intimacy, and the conceit works because Russian society of the 1870’s was a play in which everyone had an appointed role, e.g., dutiful wife, subjugated peasant, insulated bureaucrat, cavalier aristocrat—you get the idea. All of this rigidity is about to be blasted by revolutions, but meanwhile the unfaithful wife, Anna (Keira Knightly), will suffer the opprobrium reserved for those who dare to defy the rules by giving into romantic love at any cost. Although the rules are an unspoken code, they must be respected. That punishment is meted out even if her husband, Karenin (Jude Law) is a cold fish of a rigid minister, who, my goodness, can’t get excited about making love to Keira Knightly! 

The imaginative set design contrasts neatly with Karenin’s lack of creativity and sensitivity. The ballet-like sequences on the stage are romantic interpretations of the unreal world Anna inhabits. Director Joe Wright gets the dance motif just right.

For whom does Madame Karenina forsake her place and comforts?  A pretty count, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), beautiful actually, who has a reputation for bedding wealthy socialites. He is less intense, except for the lovemaking, than the needy Anna, for whom the restrictions and recriminations of this imprisoning world are too much.

I was disappointed only in Stoppard’s choice of emphasizing the adultery to the exclusion of larger issues such as class disparities and the passage of the old order.

The production and acting are first-rate, and Knightly proves to be one of the best actresses of her generation. If you love to see mankind gloriously bad, as only the Russians can depict with such lovely gravity, then see it all anew in the most recent Anna Karenina.

“Romantic love will be the last delusion of the old order.’ Nikolai Levin (Domhnall Gleeson)

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at
He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel and Idol Chatter.
Contact him at