Written in 1877, Leo Tolstoy's epic Russian novel "Anna Karenina" has inspired a ballet, play, opera, ill-fated Broadway musical, and seventeen film adaptations. Director Joe Wright's bold reimagining of the period drama made its debut at the Venice Film Festival on Monday. The film centers on a privileged wife and mother, Anna (Kiera Knightley), who feels trapped by her frigid husband, Alexei (Jude Law), and the rigid constraints of 19th century Russian society. When she meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), she becomes enmeshed in an all-consuming love affair. The romance threatens her reputation at a time when women are expected to abide by a strict code of conduct.
It's been fifteen years since a screen version of Tolstoy's classic (starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean) was released. Based on the early reviews, Wright's version is an audacious retelling of the torrid tale.
Indie Wire's Oliver Lyttelton praises the film--noting that the cast is remarkable.
"Knightley continues to go from strength to strength with each project, giving Anna a flightiness and impulsiveness that feel almost more like an Ibsen heroine than a Tolstoy one, but it's a smart take on the character, and she truly impresses when she lets the fireworks fly towards the end," says Lyttelton. "Law is excellent too, in a part that's older and more buttoned-up than the kind he normally gets; the perspective of the script is more empathetic to Karenin than you might expect, and the actor succeeds entirely in giving you reason to feel for him, while also making you understand why Anna might turn elsewhere."
Variety's Leslie Felperin cites Wright's previous collaborations with Knightley as evidence that the director has thrice gotten great performances from her.
"Once again demonstrating that Wright knows how to get the best from Knightley (arguably her best work has been in 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Atonement'), the actress's angular beauty, declamatory line delivery and air of self-doubt all work in her favor here," says Felperin. "Knightley's Anna is a silly little flirt, playing at being a romantic heroine, but incapable of thinking through the endgame. Not unlike her turn as Sabina Spielrein in 'A Dangerous Method,' this is a femme more tortured than pleasured by her own uncontrollable desires."
Though Felperin praises Knightley's Anna, she does find fault with her on-screen romance with Taylor-Johnson.
"Taylor-Johnson squares up well with Knightley, initially swaggering around town like a randy 'It Boy,' and then quietly terrified and out of his depth when her jealous rages blossom," says Felperin. "But their mutual self-absorption makes them harder to root for as a couple, which diminishes the emotional wallop expected from the material."
David Gritten, of The Telegraph, praises Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard for their eloquent staging of Tolstoy's lengthy work.
"Between them, Wright and Stoppard have filleted and condensed this doorstep of a novel into two hours of screen time, fashioning it into a swirling, swoony, achingly romantic tragedy," says Gritten. "Stoppard's witty conceit is to present the story of doomed heroine Anna literally as a piece of theatre, played out beneath a proscenium arch with its own backstage, curtain and audience. But magically and playfully, Wright's cameras open up the confines of the stage to expansive, exterior vistas. It's dazzling to watch."
But not everyone is singing the film's praises. David Sexton of the Evening Standard feels that the book's considerable content is better suited for a miniseries rather than a two hour film.
"It doesn't help that Stoppard has, however expertly, reduced this 1,000 page novel to a series of bullet points and tableaux. Anna Karenina is so much better suited to be a leisurely, flowing TV serial than this rattling parade of telling postures and smart one-liners."
Oliver Coleman of Front Row Reviews also finds fault with the film. He maintains that Taylor-Johnson, despite strong performances in his previous films, is "miscast"--which compromises his chemistry with Knightley.
"...the one major casting issue I had was Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky," says Coleman. "Bearing in mind that he had to play the love rival to the older looking Law, Johnson looks like he has just come away from the set of 'Skins,' with a very bad go at trying to grow facial hair. Usually, I am a big fan of him, rewatching 'Nowhere Boy' and 'Kick Ass' with excitement but in this film, he felt like a bad choice. It just seems like a bigger, more mature actor was needed for the role where he was needing to be sensual, but instead he just felt like a bad schoolboy teasing the girls around him. Furthermore, it felt a bit uncomfortable watching Johnson and Knightly kiss, not for their age gap but for the time they have spent in the eyes of the audience (the latter being around much longer) and therefore, I felt this lost some of the capacity for drama and scandal, which it could have otherwise gained with another actor."
"Anna Karenina" is set to hit theaters on Nov. 9, 2012.