I had high hopes for Anna Karenina, the ambitious new film adaptation of Tolstoy's classic tale of a married high society Russian woman (Keira Knightley) who falls in love with a dapper young cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Savages and Kick-Ass).
Unfortunately, the affair leaves much to be desired. It moves at such a painfully slow pace, it's hard to believe it was instigated by an irresistible passion. It's easy enough to understand why Anna would be bored with her incredibly dull husband, played to perfection by a dowdy Jude Law. But it's not entirely clear why she would be compelled to throw her life away for the charming young Vronsky who follows her around like a puppy dog.
Sure, Vronsky is cute. But the build-up to the affair is so arduous it becomes almost hard to believe. Yes, Anna is essentially a "good" woman who is struggling with her own morality, and her initial resistance to Vronsky is necessary to establish this; but she seems more amused by Vronsky's advances than overcome by passion. As for Vronsky, it's never entirely clear why he's so taken with Anna when he could have his pick of any number of beautiful young ladies vying for his attention.
Maybe Knightley and Taylor-Johnson simply lack the chemistry necessary to illustrate why Anna would be moved to leave her nice husband, regal home, and, most importantly, the son she supposedly adores. Or maybe the over-stylized, theatrical approach to the film overshadows the love story.
The end result is that this latest take on Anna Karenina doesn't deliver on the steamy old-timey love affair it promises. Don't despair, though. I've compiled a list of five fine period films that can quench your thirst for satisfying, corset-ripping affairs.
1. Titanic. Jack and Rose are a couple we can get behind. They have undeniable chemistry from the moment they meet. Jack ignites something in Rose; she's happy with him, to the point where we believe she couldn't possibly go on living without him. (It turns out that she can, tragically, but at least she followed her heart and ditched that uppity Billy Zane.)
2. Valmont. This salacious flick doesn't just boast one steamy old-timey affair -- it has more than you can shake a stick at! All are orchestrated by the ultimate devious twosome Merteuil (Annette Bening) and Valmont (Colin Firth). The sexually aggressive pair ruthlessly pursues whoever catches their eye, regardless (or because of) who many get hurt along the way. One of the best things about the film is seeing Firth as a sexy bad guy, while Fairuza Balk (The Craft) plays an innocent young thing.
3. The Age of Innocence. Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer) had more of an emotional affair than anything, unless you count sensual hand-holding, impassioned slipper kissing and the odd kiss here and there as adultery. Their love for one another was undeniable, and yet they denied it for the sake of being "good," and protecting the feelings of his innocent young wife (Winona Ryder). Even though it would be wrong, you can't help but root for Archer and Ellen to wind up together.
4. Dangerous Liaisons. Like Valmont, this is based on the famous French play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It's almost as deliciously juicy as Valmont, which is why it also landed a spot on this list. This time around, Glenn Close and John Malkovich play the sexy schemers, while Uma Thurman is the sweet ingenue. Close is excellent as the puppet master orchestrating all of the affairs. She's just plain good at playing evil, isn't she? Michelle Pfieffer is alluring as the virtuous Madame de Tourvel.
5. Farewell, My Queen. This may not be the best movie ever made, but the fabulous costumes and extra-illicit nature of the affair bump it up a notch for this particular list. Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette deftly captures the infatuation, agony and all-consuming passion of a torrid affair. The beautiful object of her affection, the Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), seems to be using the Queen, which makes you feel that much more for the pining, love-sick Marie Antoinette, who would do anything for her beloved.