“Anna Karenina” is off to a solid start in the Oscar derby. The period romance has received mostly positive notices from critics and bloggers after its premiere in London, especially for its star, Keira Knightley, whom we’re currently giving strong odds in the Best Actress race. It would be her second bid; her first came for another famous literary adaptation: “Pride & Prejudice,” which was directed by “Karenina” helmer Joe Wright.
Wright’s reimagining of Tolstoy’s novel, as realized in Oscar and Tony winner Tom Stoppard‘s adaptation, has met with much praise for its ambition and innovation. However some critics express reservations about his approach to telling this story of the title character’s chilly marriage to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and her affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson).
Johnson is also widely criticized for his role as Knightley’s lover, though some reviewers argue he is simply miscast. Nevertheless, Knightley’s Best Actress hopes seem to be alive and well after these early notices. The film’s next stop is the Toronto Film Festival on September 7, where we will find out more about how the film plays with critics and audiences.
Indiewire‘s Oliver Lyttleton praises the film, particularly Wright’s style and the performances of Knightley and Law: “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. 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 admires the film’s innovative departure from its source material: “Eschewing the classical realism that’s characterized most adaptations of Tolstoy’s source novel, helmer Joe Wright makes the generally inspired decision to stylize his dark, expressionist take on ‘Anna Karenina.’ Setting most of the action in a mocked-up theater emphasizes the performance aspects of the characters’ behavior, a strategy enhanced by lead thesp Keira Knightley’s willingness to let her neurotic Anna appear less sympathetic than in previous incarnations.”
David Gritten of UK’s Telegraph lauded the visual style and performances, with a couple of exceptions: “Wright’s shooting style better suits scenes in sophisticated St Petersburg society than those involving the idealistic rural toiler Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). And Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Vronsky looks like a boy sent in to do a man’s job; he can do shallow and spoiled, which Vronsky is, but he’s no-one’s idea of an adroit cavalry officer.”
Evening Standard‘s David Sexton is critical of the film, but nevertheless praises its cast: “The outcome is to make this great realist novel wholly artificial, relentlessly stagey in the worst sense. All the world’s a stage? No, it’s not, actually, you think, perhaps not quite so politely as that, as you watch this charade … It’s a shame, for much of the casting is good.”
In Contention‘s Guy Lodge has mixed feelings about the ambitious adaptation: “This is origami-style filmmaking, complicating forms because it knows how, and if it doesn’t add much to the text — the straight-arrow script isn’t playing along with its romantic make-believe games — it doesn’t obfuscate things either … This is a richly, rewardingly, improbably alive ‘Anna Karenina,’ but there’s a difference between a film that is constantly in motion, and one that actually moves. All the men and women merely players, indeed.”