By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars) (the Internet Movie Database) lists a total of six theatrical feature and four television (films and mini-series) adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s acclaimed classic.  Writer Tom Stoppard (Brazil, Empire of the Sun) and director Joe Wright (Hanna, Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) are the latest filmmakers to adapt the Russian author’s morality tragedy of love, infidelity and gender-based double standards.  While Wright and his artists and crew do a remarkable job presenting a unique vision of Anna Karenina, it seems as if they get a little too caught up in the aesthetics of their movie and lose sight of the real heart of the story.  In addition to what is lacking at the root of the film, the movie often feels melodramatically performed by the cast and feels a bit more in tune with a soap opera than a classic work of literature.

In 19th century Russia, the title character, Anna (Keira Knightley), an unhappily married woman and mother, falls in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the two begin a passionate affair.  When her husband Karenin (Jude Law) and the rest of her Russian society “friends” find out, Anna’s life is forever changed as she is shunned by the people in her circle.

I actually have never read Tolstoy’s novel, but now feel compelled to do so if I can ever find the time to sit and read between movies.  Not that I am complaining at all, it’s just that in the midst of my day job, reviewing films, assisting my elderly parents and attempts at maintaining a social life, I rarely find time to read anymore.  After watching this film and finding the story fascinating, I would love to read the highly lauded book that has inspired so many adaptations.  I did some research regarding the novel and it seems that some key characters and plot points are glossed over by Stoppard and Wright.  I’m sure that Tolstoy fanatics will despise the short-cuts, omissions and liberties taken by the writer and director.

As for myself, I feel that Stoppard could have written a better script incorporating these missing elements much better.  If Wright hadn’t been so focused on the style of his presentation, then perhaps audiences would be treated to a film that truly honors Tolstoy’s vision.  Not to be mistaken, I did enjoy the movie overall, and mainly for the gorgeous and unique style in which it is presented.  I just feel that the film drags and meanders too much sometimes because of it.  The gorgeous costumes, art design, cinematography and meticulous editing will require some adjustment by audiences in the beginning, then will serve to enchant and enamor, but will probably grow a bit tiresome by the last act.  It almost feels like a romantic relationship with a gorgeous person who has a clashing personality.

While I do have my gripes about some of the acting in the film, especially in the more melodramatic moments, the talented cast does have their bright moments as well.  I just wish that this cast, which obviously has the chops, would have offered consistently excellent performances.  Keira Knightley, who has done period pieces prior to this one, has some beautiful dramatic scenes here, but disappointingly also has her share of overacted ones.

I will go on to recommend this movie for a matinee viewing as it will look quite gorgeous on the big screen, but otherwise, I cannot encourage people to spend big bucks on it. The film lacks some intensity, needs a better adapted script of Tolstoy’s novel, and stalls sporadically.  Filmmakers or those who can appreciate the aesthetic aspects of filmmaking will appreciate the beauty that it has to offer, but Tolstoy enthusiasts will dislike the missing substance.

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