Friday, December 7, 2012

Anna Karenina (2012): A Review


It is with a heavy heart that I confess not having read Anna Karenina, even when Oprah herself placed it in her eponymous Book Club, squeezing it in between whatever writings Maya Angelou or Deepak Chopra were pushing.  I do have it on my list of books to read, though I'd like to finish Memoirs of a Geisha before going on to such a massive novel. 

If I may digress, my mother LOVES all these Russian books.  She's gotten on my case for not reading Karenina, or The Brothers Karamazov, or Doctor Zhivago, or War and Peace.  That being the case, I cannot judge whether Joe Wright's adaptation of Leon Tolstoy's massive masterpiece strays from the source material (though I gather we don't get as much farming techniques as the reader does).  However, judging just on this, the first adaptation of Anna Karenina that I've seen, I never got the sense that Anna and her lover Vronsky were passionately, wildly, madly, and completely in love.  I just got the sense they were very, very horny.

I at least am not completely ignorant of the plot.  Beautiful Anna (Keira Knightley), wife of the steady yet dull Karenin (Jude Law) meets and begins a shattering affair with the dashing soldier Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  However, I'm getting ahead of myself.  First, we set the scene: 1874 Imperial Russia.  Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden) was caught with the nanny by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).  Despite Karenin's objections, Anna goes to her brother in an effort to help them patch things up.  "Sin has a price, you may be sure of that," he tells his beauty.

From the cosmopolitan St. Petersburg she travels to the more rustic Moscow, and there meets Vronsky.  He apparently becomes fascinated with her, and soon she with him.  Thus they soon begin a tempestuous affair that has all the Russias talking.  Anna is willing to risk everything for her lover, except perhaps the loss of her own child with Karenin.  Despite the scandal, Anna remains married to Karenin, even while the child she bears is Vronsky's.  Whatever hopes they have for a divorce do not come, and eventually a distraught Anna, having risked and lost her name, her reputation, and even Vronsky (to a beautiful princess), finds that life is not worth living, meeting her fate at the train station...

Oh, yes, there's also another plot woven in: that of idealistic land owner/Oblonsky's friend Levin and his love for Dolly's younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  Kitty herself once loved Vronsky, but he turned away as soon as he met the gorgeous Anna... 

It's certainly true that Knightley as Anna is ravishingly beautiful.  Joe Wright, who has directed her to an Oscar nomination in Pride & Prejudice and worked with her also in Atonement has found a muse on which to paint his lavish costume dramas on.  What Wright also decided to do in an effort to make this version of Anna Karenina (the 12th film adaptation if Wikipedia is to be believed with the better known versions having Greta Garbo--twice--and Vivien Leigh in the title role), he was going to call attention to the artifice of it all by having the story basically take place in a theater.  In a similar vein, the performances, the staging, the movements were likewise more theatrical.

Perhaps that might have worked better than a straightforward adaptation of the Tolstoy novel.  I say perhaps because early on in the film I couldn't help think this Anna Karenina looked like Russian literature as imagined by a Federico Fellini impersonator...and a bad one at that.  Here is where Anna Karanina commits its greatest sin: it revolves so much around the visuals that the characters somehow become less human, their emotions less interesting.

If there is a way to describe Anna Karenina (as opposed to Anna herself) is that it is as cold as the Russian winters it goes through.   I understand the book is good enough as it is; it doesn't need any extra flourishes.   I get that Wright was attempting to say that Imperial Russia (in particular the aristocracy and government officials) lived their lives as if in a theater, performing for their contemporaries. 

However, did that have to spill over into the performances as well?  I suppose the biggest blame on this artifice belongs to Johnson (or Taylor-Johnson now).  Granted, perhaps in the novel Vronsky was suppose to be callous, but given how Taylor-Johnson was in the film, I never understood why Anna would be remotely attracted to this weak and foolish boy (apart from the fact that he was pretty).  Knightley follows him, though in fairness to her not to the degree Taylor-Johnson does in being overly theatrical.

Knightley actually makes Anna a bit more troubled, dare I say, more human (though again, her attraction and total bewitchment by Vronsky is unexplained).  She does a better job than Tom Stoppard's script should allow her to. 

As a digression, I noticed that Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery (aka Lady Mary) was in Anna Karenina very briefly near the end (probably fit it into her schedule between seasons).  As good as Knightley was (and she was good), I can't help think that Dockery would have made a far better Anna because she A.) already has vast experience playing aristocrats, and B.) she would have been perhaps less of a known commodity than Knightley.  In other words, while Dockery has gained fame, she hasn't achieved enough to make her a full-fledged star like Knightley.  That being said, we might have seen ANNA up on the screen, not Keira Knightley AS Anna.

Out of the cast, only Jude Law really appears to understand he is, despite the trappings, in a film, one that requires a different style of acting than a theatrical production would.  His Karenin was not a prude or a vindictive cuckold husband.  Instead, he was a principled man who was both at a loss and furious that his wife, to whom he's been loyal to, would betray him and continue to call out to her lover rather than him.  One senses that Law's Karenin was more sad that his wife would throw him over for a child and ruin herself. 

Stylistically, I can't say anything really bad about Anna Karenina (apart from the fact that the theatrical trappings were at times distracting, while when we forget they were there the film improves).  Jacqueline Durran's costumes were beautiful, Dario Marianelli's score was sumptuous, and the art direction by Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer were all lovely to admire.  In short, Anna Karenina did not skimp on the production side that all good costume dramas have. 
Here's the thing with Anna Karenina: I didn't hate it, but the reasons for what is suppose to be a doomed romance never materialized.  It's hard to believe that Tolstoy's story failed.  Rather, I think by emphasizing the theatricality of it all, Anna Karenina kept us at a distance, unable to fully wrap us in the passions that consumed Anna and Vronsky.  I found it all efficient, but rather cold. 

All great adaptations are brilliant, all less-than-great adaptations are failures in their own way.  

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