Two movies directed by Joe Wright have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Both of those movies starred Keira Knightley. Keira Knightley has been nominated for one Oscar. That performance was from Pride & Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright. Good things happen when the two join forces and they are back for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Unfortunately, it's their weakest venture to date.
Anna Karenina is a romantic drama set in 19th century Russia, and Wright does his best to keep the movie from feeling anything like a traditional period piece. The first act is terrific as Wright develops the plot, characters and variety of environments on what is literally a theater stage. The set constantly evolves as characters move from bedrooms to ballrooms to train stations, an ambitious and often intoxicating approach to a costume drama.
And then, gradually, Wright abandons his isolated set and Anna Karenina begins to transform into what he so desperately wanted to avoid: the dreaded costume drama. After a while, the movie begins to feel less innovative and more generic. While there are moments of brilliance, the movie simply begins to drag.
Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (practically unrecognizable from his lead-role in Kick-Ass) turn in fine but unremarkable performances. Knightley has simply been better in other films, including Wright's Atonement and Pride & Prejudice. The problems lay less with the actors than they do their characters, however. Law's character is emotionally bland - not his fault - and Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky does little but stare intensely at Anna. Ultimately, the film suffers because Knightley and Taylor-Johnson lack chemistry together.
Anna Karenina is meant to revolve around an electric and scandalous affair, but Wright fails to capture Anna and Vronsky's sizzling emotions and relay them to the audience. Their relationship is flat where it should define everything about the film; this is the one element where Wright's attempts to be different distract from the core themes of the picture.
Despite its faults, Anna Karenina has its merits. The movie is a serviceable period piece. But Keira Knightley and Joe Wright have worked together twice before to create two fantastic movies; Anna Karenina fails to meet expectations.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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