Keeping Up Appearances

Is there more to Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina than just beautiful costumes?

Title:               Anna Karenina

Certificate:      12A

Director:          Joe Wright

Major players:  Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson

Out of five?       3.5

Before you ask, Patricia Routledge doesn’t feature in this review.

Towards the end of last year, I reviewed Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and drew  several parallels with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  And now the latest version of the Russian masterpiece – there have been several, both on the small and big screen – at last reaches cinemas on a tide of expectation.

Married to a successful government minister, Anna Karenina travels to Moscow to help repair her brother’s marriage after his confessed infidelity.  While there, she meets dashing cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, and they embark on an affair that threatens to destroy everybody it touches.

Lavish, opulent, extravagant ……… pick your word to describe the look of the film because, visually, it’s all that and more.  Its luxuriousness owes much to director Baz Luhrmann, particularly his ground-breaking Moulin Rouge.  The colours are rich and much is made of colour contrasts, for instance the blonde Vronsky in glamorous white trimmed with gold compared to the bearded, bespectacled Karenin in plain grey.

The camerawork is, at times, equally showy and just as impressive.  The ball sequence, which marks the start of Anna’s affair with Vronksy, is shot at dizzying speed, whirling round the room and stopping momentarily on individuals.  The pace of the first half of the film is only marginally slower, as we are rushed from scene to scene, so much so that the slower second half comes as something of a surprise.

This speed is helped by the setting inside a deserted theatre, with action taking place on the stage, in the auditorium, in the wings and above the stage.  It’s an imaginative interpretation and not difficult to understand.  Anna has a position in society where she is on show – on the stage, as it were – so appearances count for everything, regardless of what happens behind closed doors.  And the proscenium arch reinforces the constraints and restrictions of her position.

But does it work?  Up to a point, yes.  There are some scenes that work particularly well: the opener moves with lightening smoothness from one setting to another, setting the scene remarkably quickly.  And the horse racing sequence blends theatrical and film technique to dramatic effect. But it doesn’t always succeed. In the final scene, the theatre auditorium becomes an extension of the field on the stage: leaving it empty would have been far more effective.

As the film went on, I found myself becoming increasingly absorbed in the visuals – the costumes, the camera work, the lighting.  And, for me, that’s its inherent weakness.  While appearances are a major theme, they seem to have taken over the film.  This is exemplified by Keira Knightley in the lead role.  She does everything beautifully – not in the sense of “superbly”, but that everything just underlines how beautiful she is.  She cries beautifully – and a lot.  She is ill beautifully, with her curly hair spread immaculately on her pillow to the extent that it is reminiscent of a gorgon.  She even dies beautifully, with an artistic spatter of blood across her face.  This is a woman who is condemned and ostracised for defying society’s conventions – and delicate, photogenic tears trickling down her cheek simply aren’t enough to convince us of her pain.

Because of its emphasis on the visual, the film comes close to wasting what is a very good cast.  The gems are mainly in the supporting roles – Matthew Macfadyen as her charmingly shallow and selfish brother and Ruth Wilson as the sly, conniving Princess Betsy.  As Karenin, Jude Law turns in what is easily his best performance since The Talented Mr Ripley.  The character is usually portrayed as a much older husband, but here we have a man who is Anna’s contemporary but old beyond his years. Ramrod-stiff in posture, meticulous, proud and protective of his position, he is not without humanity.

Anna Karenina looks wonderful and will no doubt be a contender in the art direction and costume design categories come the awards season.  It may be a film about appearances, but to have truly succeeded and make you engage more closely with the characters, it needed more depth. It succeeds on the surface level, but beneath, on that deeper level, it simply falls short.

This review can be downloaded as a podcast at


One thought on “Keeping Up Appearances

  1. That’s a very good review. I was also hugely impressed with the visuals – the camerawork and settings were just fantastic! And I do agree, the film just needed a little bit more depth. However, in my review I also pointed out that this lack of ‘depth’ is caused mainly by the flawed script and badly chosen cast, especially Vronsky.

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