Review: Anna Karenina

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“Sin has its consequences” Karenin (Jude Law) tell his wife Anna (Keira Knightley), in the umpteenth adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. This one, though, directed by Joe Wright and written by Tom Stoppard, is different. I didn’t find it better than the 1948 version with Vivien Leigh (still haven’t seen the Greta Garbo version), but it certainly gets points for style.

Wright has set the film inside a theater, and highlights the artificiality of the action. Characters step through a door and go from palace to skid row. Drops fly in and out, and though there are scenes that are shot outside, others are purposely made theatrical, such a horse race and a train station.

I’m not sure this makes any grand point, but it is beautiful to look at. The production design by Sarah Greenwood is so amazing to behold, and the costumes by Jacqueline Durran are stunning. The sumptuousness of the film helps disguise some of the story problems.

The script is extremely faithful to the novel, set in imperial Russia in the 1870s among the nobility, but also incredibly economical. Stoppard is quite clever in boiling down concepts that may take fifty pages of a book into just a few seconds of film. For example, the opening, in which Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, is caught dallying with his children’s governess, is expressed in a shot of his wife (Kelly Macdonald) finding a love note.

The novel is huge, so a two-hour adaptation has to get rid of a lot of fat. This is where the problem is in any adaptation of this book. The juicy story is Anna falling in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leaving her husband, and creating a scandal. The parallel plot involves Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner, and his love for Kitty (Alica Vikander). Levin’s love for Kitty is contrasted with Vronsky’s for Anna as the adult version of love–several times in the book and film romantic love is pooh-poohed as something being horribly out-dated. It’s sort of a Goofus and Gallant interpretation of love.

But Levin’s story is far less interesting, so he gets the short end of the stick. So we get the soap opera of the cuckolded husband, and there lies the problem: Anna and Vronsky are horribly selfish characters. In this film, Karenin is the sympathetic character (not true in the 1948 film, where Ralph Richardson plays him as an ogre). At one point, after Law understands the full nature of Anna’s betrayal, he says “What did I do to deserve this?” Good question.

Of course, Law plays Karenin as a humorless prig, a government minister who seems to have never let his thinning hair down. Vronsky, as played by Taylor-Johnson, looks like a refugee from a boy band (I found him far too pretty and bland for the role). But though Knightey and Taylor-Johnson are allowed some steamy scenes that fall just short of nudity, I never felt any chemistry between them.

The other actors are fine. Knightley is no Vivien Leigh, but she has some nice moments, such as when she goes to the theater and is snubbed for being an adulteress. Matthew Macfadyen plays Oblonsky as if he had studied the films of Kevin Kline (he would have made a good Vronsky–after all, he was Darby to Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice) and Vikander makes a suitably angelic Kitty.

I do give Anna Karenina a thumbs up, though. Whenever the story lags, the world of the film is so fascinating that it carried me to the next scene. Other well-worn classics might benefit from a similar treatment.

My grade for Anna Karenina: B-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

3 responses »

  1. Haven’t read this review yet (I will after I see the movie), but I thought I’d chime in and say that it’s really making some people angry. It’s doing pretty well at the theater I work at, but we’ve had some complaints from customers about how terrible it is. Had a couple last night that walked out after 10 minutes because they just detested it (they were nice about it though, and just wanted to exchange their tickets for a different movie).

    Frankly, it makes me want to see it more. Who would have thought that a period adaptation of Anna Karenina would rile up the traditionalists? Sounds fascinating.

  2. Saw the movie today, and I actually agree with just about everything in this review, down to Macfadyen’s summoning of Kevin Kline.

    Overall, I felt that the film was admirable in many respects but was also missing something indescribable that would have pulled it all together. Always felt just out of arm’s reach to me.

    Maybe you’re right that Taylor-Johnson was miscast, although I could appreciate what he and Wright were trying to do with the role – I think the idea was to paint him as kind of groundless and insubstantial, compared to both Karenin and Levin, but that just caused problems with the credibility of his and Anna’s great love affair. Perhaps it would have been wiser to play him as more of a viable match for Anna. Although Knightley’s a little overmatched herself here; it’s probably the weakest of her work with Wright, and once again her limitations as an actress are really hard to overcome.

    But I think your “B-” is pretty close to where I stand.

  3. When I first saw the poster on the lot I just assumed Jude Law was playing the love interest. Man, I feel old.

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