Anna Karenina movie review: Heroine or villain?

Nov 16, 2012 at 9:00 a.m. ET

In this fabulous 21st-century telling of Tolstoy’s classic novel, Keira Knightley fascinates both Russian high society and today's audience. Literally set on a stage, this theatrical film indulges in one woman’s journey into selfish obsession. But when it comes to the dangerously sexy Vronsky — who can blame her?

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

4 out of 5 stars: Perfect for those who
love a good romantic tragedy

Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to Karenin, a man of great wealth and status in the 19th-century Russian government. She delights in her young son, but having married very young, there is much she has yet to discover about herself.

On a trip to Moscow to help her philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew MacFayden), reconcile with his scorned wife, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald), Anna meets a dashing man named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins a journey into obsession, sexual desire, self-realization and destruction.

Meanwhile, a young landholder named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who's not at the top of the social ladder, is obsessively in love as well. He lusts after Dolly's beautiful young sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). He proposes marriage to pretty-Kitty, but alas, Kitty has also fallen under Vronsky's spell. She shuns Levin and rolls the dice with Vronsky, who she believes will spend the evening at the grand ball dancing with her.

Anna Karenina

Kitty and Anna are both shocked when bad-boy Vronsky can't take his eyes off married Anna. While mistresses were often taken by the Russian elite, for a young, single man to pursue an older, married woman was quite scandalous.

Anna, who respects her husband greatly, knows nothing of passionate romance and is defenseless when Vronksy chases after her. Once he catches her, neither he nor she can let go.

And herein lies the central question of Anna Karinina: Is she to be applauded for taking a stand against a societal double standard that allows men enormous moral latitude while denying women the same freedom? Or is she a selfish, childish narcissist who is incapable of feeling empathy for the husband and son to whom she has committed her life?

Anna Karenina

Director Joe Wright's (Pride and Prejudice, also starring Knightley) creative decision to set the film on the stage of a theater provides a meaty metaphor for imperial Russian society. He implies that instead of living their lives with passion and truth, the pre-revolution upper class were "acting" as if they were fulfilled — "acting" as if they were happy. Anyone who's ever seen Dr. Zhivago knows the dark fate of the Russian upper crust.

Lush costumes and choreographed scenes flow like a ballet, as does Tom Stoppard's (Shakespeare in Love) dialogue. Keira is extraordinary in the challenging role of Anna, and the gorgeous Aaron Taylor-Johnson grabs Vronsky by the throat and doesn't let go.

Bottom line: If you love costume dramas, particularly ones with romantic tragedy, you’ll love this film. Enjoy!

Photo credit: Focus Features