‘All the world’s a stage…’ seems to be the line from which this film builds its primary metaphor. The opening sequence is visually stunning: we see Matthew MacFayden atop a sumptuous stage, decked in gold and filigree and being tended to by a barber whose blades move so fast and with such flourish we are reminded of the theatricality of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. From this, MacFayden walks along the stage, into another room somehow connected, and the following scenes unfold similarly, with the nineteenth century Imperial Russian theatre at the centre of events in a maze-like continuum of noble splendour and pomp.
Although beautiful and finished with inarguable style, this visual metaphor is too prolonged: we return to it often throughout the film, which is at first clever as it seems to represent the façade and general performance aspect of high Russian society. There comes a point, however, when a metaphor becomes excessive, and rather than intelligent, feels convoluted and contrived, detracting from the story at hand. At times excellently executed, at others completely ridiculous, the theatrical representation leaves the audience confused as certain events appear dream-like and imaginary, despite being integral to the narrative.
Keira Knightley is utterly beautiful from beginning to end, wearing the colourful, classy costumes with grace and elegance. Her character is brilliantly beguiling: although an adulteress, she is deeply sympathetic, as she strives for love and excitement in the passionless world of the Russian aristocracy, and Knightley injects the role with the levels of emotion and sincereity of performance last seen in her role as The Duchess (2008). Her character is complex: at times mad, selfish and vulnerable – but always believable in her struggle against the petty prejudices of high society. Wright and Stoppard draw attention to the glaring issue of women’s rights and the expectations placed upon them during the nineteenth century, especially in regards to marriage and divorce.
Her husband Alexei Karenin, played by Jude Law should for all purposes be a wholly sympathetic and lovable character, but is not given the screen-time to develop any kind of persona for us to care about. His role is under-developed and mostly pointless, leaving Anna’s lover little to compete with.
The object of her affections, however, is an utterly miscast and lost-looking Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky, who is totally unbelievable, both as her lover and as a full-grown man. Knightley’s elegant physique and carriage is completely at odds with Taylor-Johnson’s clumsy performance, and he fails to convince us of his maturity, often looking uncomfortable amongst the veterans on screen, with a joke-shop moustache doing little to alleviate his uneasiness. The pair have no chemistry on screen, and the relationship is rendered implausible due to this salient shortcoming, making it impossible to emotionally invest in their relationship.
Thankfully, however, young lovers Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) restore our faith in the very idea of relationships. Although many of the female characters are underused (Kelly Macdonald’s Dolly, Olivia Williams’ Countess Vronsky, Ruth Williams’ Princes Betsy), Vikander is wonderful as Kitty. Their relationship is innocent and pure, in sharp contrast to that of Anna and Vronsky, and totally deserves our support. Gleeson is great as Levin, a young and naive man who refuses to give up on love, and their courtship is told in a beautifully simple and touching manner.
Also worth a mention is Matthew Macfayden as Oblonsky, whose comic timing and perfectly choreographed scenes add to the sense of magic and entertainment about the film. Although at times it feels Wright has sacrificed any substance in favour of style, stand-out performances like these hold strength, and make the lavish set and costume design worth the effort. In one memorable moment, Macfayden roguishly asserts ‘divorce is one thing, dinner is quite another’ which aptly describes the views and motivations of the social circle of the film.
The costumes are superb and the general cinematography is wondrous, yet in the final quarter everything becomes too over the top, which is the downfall of the film. Earlier on, the high-contrast exposure, and the over-use of the colour white makes Anna and Vronsky’s relationship feel cheesy, and as the affair draws to a close, the palette becomes too vivid and rich, supposedly to symbolise the relationship slipping from her grasp/reality, yet this feels insincere and false, and almost too obvious. The over-ambitious visual effects, coupled with Taylor-Johnson’s embarrassing performance make the central relationship of the film farcical, and it is with great gratitude that the audience finds solace in a superb supporting cast.
Wright and Stoppard almost achieve greatness, but fall short due to over-ambition and a convoluted metaphor.