My “watch test” is usually a good metric for deciding whether a movie is any good. If I can get through the first hour without looking at my watch – something I do compulsively – then my overall feelings are positive. Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is the rare movie that passes the watch test but falls apart anyway. The first hour is downright rapturous: working from a script by Tom Stoppard, Wright’s handling of Tolstoy’s novel is eye-popping and unique. For its second half, Wright eschews uncommon style in favor of a conventional adaptation. The oddly abrupt shift weakens the sense of tragedy.
A plurality of Anna Karenina takes place in an old theater. When we first meet Anna (Keira Knightley) and her husband (Jude Law), for example, Wright wheels in their home onto the stage. When it’s time for another scene, they exit the stage and another set takes its place. Ironically, this constraint opens up Wright’s creativity: with one beautifully complex dance sequence, Wright almost surpasses Russian Ark, and that was famously filmed in one take. Characters float in and out of the theater so quickly that the overall mood develops more quickly than their relationships. So when Anna first meets the handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Wright already struck a tone where their affair seems inevitable.
Did I mention the characters speak, too? Much of Anna Karenina is more impressionistic than literal, so it’s easy to forget Wright is adapting one of Russia’s most famous novels. Between confident set-pieces, Stoppard stratifies elite St. Petersburg society, giving us a sense of Anna’s unfortunate station. Her husband is bound by complex ideas of religion and morality; in a terrific supporting role, Law plays him as a decent man who’s forced to acknowledge his reserves of hatred. Knightley’s performance rises and falls based on Anna’s relationship with men. She effectively communicates the airy lightness of new love, and frustration when her husband refuses to divorce (Taylor-Johnson is magnetic without seemingly doing much). But when frustration transitions into despair, the direction fails the performance.
Anna Karenina begins to sputter after the affair falls apart. Instead of emotional heft, the static direction forces the stuffiness found in conventional costume dramas. There are problems on a script level, too. The romance of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is meant to run parallel with the central romance, but the relationship feels, well, bland. I haven’t read the Tolstoy novel so I cannot discuss the deeper thematic material, yet it seems as if Stoppard and Wright have abandoned subtext and rely on the viewer to fill the missing holes. Absent the cinematic flourishes, the script cannot sell Kitty’s transition from a naïve girl into a devoted husband. The other supporting actors barely make an impression, except for Matthew Macfadyen’s comic turn as Oblonsky.
In Pride and Prejudice, Wright did not set out to give the conclusive adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. But with a genuine payoff and an earned sappy ending, it nonetheless feels complete. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, requires viewers to have read the book, or at least be with familiar with prior adaptations. No matter how ornate the costumes or clever the horse race sequence, that’s no way to approach literary adaptation. Wright has the gifts to raise Anna Karenina into fanciful new heights or adopt the text in a shrewd way. He just can’t do both.