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Movie Review: Anna Karenina

November 16, 2012
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This is the third adaptation of a novel Joe Wright has made with Keira Knightley and the second of a beloved classic. The problem is that most of the belovees have actually read Pride and Prejudice, and I think that many who approach Anna Karenina get about twenty or so pages into it before throwing up their hands in frustration trying to sort out the -iliaviches from the -oliaviches.

That’s not a problem for the film, however; rather I think it may hurt its chances at the box office. Then again, the novel did find new life due to the Gospel According to Oprah, and this provides what I imagine is an excellent primer.

For one, Russian novels may suit the screen even better than their English counterparts as it’s much easier to keep track of faces than names. And Wright seems aware of this, as the names are totally unimportant. A few are bandied about, but it’s never difficult to tell Anna apart from, say, Princess Myagkaya or Countess Vronskaya or Yppikaya (notably absent from the film). We know Keira, we know her husband and her lover, the guy who looks like Thor, and the girl who looks like a young Amy Sedaris. Few of their features overlap, and when they do, the outfits provide the distinction. Though I did struggle a bit with Count Vronsky.

Once we have the principals established, the story breaks out. Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking statesman and considerably older than Anna. She falls in love with cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky (Kick-Ass‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is engaged to Princess-Extremely-Long-and-Russian-Named-But-Thankfully-Nicknamed Kitty (Alicia Vikander), whom Konstantin Levin (Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson) is in love with. And Levin is friends with Stephan (Matthew MacFayden), Anna’s brother and Kitty’s brother-in-law.

Anna and Vronsky embark on an affair, with Vronsky insisting that she divorce her husband while Levin doggedly pursues Kitty. Anna and Vronsky’s saucy affections are gradually exposed and she ends up pregnant. Her husband waffles on the divorce and the Russian elite begin to shun Anna. Caught in a stalemate, Anna begins lashing out at both her husband and her lover while Levin attempts to make his way and win the spurned Kitty.

As complex and intricate as that may read, it’s easy to follow and largely unnecessary to summarize — the fun is watching the intrigue play out, and with Tom Stoppard at the wheel of the pen, it’s far more fluid than that metaphor. Combined with Wright’s direction, the two-hour-plus running time glides with such masterful ease that it’s as much a credit as it is a detriment. After seeing the film, I don’t feel there’s any need to revisit it — I think I “got” it on the first run. Undoubtedly there’s more in the source material (I haven’t read the book), and as much ground as there is covered, it feels heavily abridged. That’s the simple inevitability of an adaptation, particularly one that’s based on a novel shy of nine hundred pages.

However, I think the finest aspect of this adaptation is its treatment of the characters. This may be Tolstoy or Stoppard, but regardless of which author, it’s refreshing to see the upper echelons of society portrayed as something more than hollow buffoons. Knightley does a wonderful job playing a woman caught between flights of love and rigid mores. Both are as flawed as they are justified. Similarly, Kitty, despite a privileged upbringing, demonstrates a human compassion that a lesser author would not grant her. And Law, as close to an antagonist as there is, is yet the most sympathetic, oblivious at first, then suffering his wife’s infidelity quietly. When it finally breaks him down, there’s an immense resonance to his simple cry. No one’s considered his feelings because he never appeared to have them.

Taylor-Johnson and MacFayden unfortunately do not fare as well. MacFayden (whom I was convinced was Kevin Kline come back from 1988) is essentially a cartoon and clashes with almost everyone else on screen. My beef with Taylor-Johnson is that I never once believed his character had genitals.

And finally, there’s the setting. The film is presented as a stage play, or, more accurately, at times, a dance recital. Their residences, travels, and balls are given the impression of being one large set, transforming around them as they glide back and forth from each spot almost predeterminately. I suspect this is done, thematically, to illustrate how their fates are likewise planned, but it’s also handy to keep from showing shot after endless shot of one character heading to their destination. Certainly it’s impressive in many of the long takes that must have taken forever to pull off, but it does tend to call attention to itself. Fortunately, when such sequences occur, they do so outside of the story and don’t often detract from it. It’s gimmicky in the first five minutes, but actually works better as it goes on.

In all, it’s worth a watch, for those wishing to familiarize themselves with the work or those looking for a lovely upper-class soap-opera. It may not illicit torrents of gushing tears, but it certainly does entertain.

Rating: 4/5

Anna Karenina is rated R. Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Tom Stoppard. Based on the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Based on the short story “Meet Me in Minsk” by Josef Stalin. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew MacFadyen, Domnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Olivia Williams, Alicia Vikander, Michelle Dockery, Emily Watson, Holliday Grainger, Shirley Henderson, and Bill Skarsgard.

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