ANNA KARENINA is one of my favorite novels. The first time I read it, decades ago, I was amazed at how completely Tolstoy captured a woman's feelings about passion, motherhood, the desire to both belong and rebel. I still marvel at the skill and authenticity and scope of the novel. Unfortunately, the new movie made from this masterpiece is an unholy mess.
The story is intact, more or less. But everything that makes the novel great is missing. Without Anna's interior complexity, without Levin's spiritual searching, without Tolstoy's ambivalent feelings for his own heroine (he wanted at first to make her completely unsympathetic and shallow, a Russian Emma Bovary, but was "led" as he wrote into greater understanding of his own creation), what's left is a pretentious soap opera.
I hated the staging, although I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this. The interior scenes are all shot on a stage, in the wings of a theater, on the catwalks, in the dressing rooms. The outdoor scenes are shot in a realistic way, outdoors on the steppes or in train stations (lots of train stations). This is supposed to convey the artificial posing of Czarist society versus the honest openness of the country life. Instead, it seems forced and tedious.
The second, and larger, problem is the casting. Keira Knightley was fine as Elizabeth Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, capturing Elizabeth's playfulness. She has the same mannerisms here, but Anna is not playful. Knightley swings from one mood to the next but cannot show us the connective tissue that make Anna complicated but believable. Even worse is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. He looks about fifteen, and comes across as a spoiled, whiny Mama's boy, not a man willing to throw away the world for love. There is no chemistry between them. In fact, Vronsky is so flat and unappealing that my movie companion whispered to me, "She should have the affair with her brother--he's about ten times as interesting!"
Matthew Macfadyen is indeed good as Stepan Oblonsky, but the real star here is Jude Law as Karenin. Not a particularly sympathetic figure in the novel, here Anna's cuckolded husband projects real anguish and complex doubt. Two people I talked to later, who had never read the novel, thought that he was supposed to be the hero.
The other stand-out is the dresses. The costumer should win an Oscar for Anna's gorgeous outfits. If you go to the movies for dresses, then see this. Otherwise, just read (or re-read) the book.