Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is a tale of love, lust, and societal constraints.

Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is also very much about style, as the director takes the classic tale and uses it as a launching pad for a demonstration of filmmaking showmanship. It’s a choice that’s bound to draw mixed reactions, but I for one found it intriguing, and as a result, the movie wound up holding my attention far better than any staid, traditional period piece adaptation would have.

“Anna Karenina” is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in Czarist Russia. It’s the story of socialite (Kiera Knightley) married to a government officer (Jude Law), who finds herself falling in love with a charming cavalry officer named Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Eventually their attraction becomes undeniable, and they consummate the affair. Their passion exceeds a brief tryst, however, and Anna is forced to seek divorce, at the cost of great societal scorn.

“Karenina” paints a picture of Russian society at the time as well as telling a tale of adultery. Gentried land owners, socialites having parties, and of course, the less fortunate who toil in the fields. Privilege vs peonage. It also highlights the hypocrisy of gender expectations… Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfadyen) regularly cheats on his wife (Kelly Macdonald), and she’s expected to forgive and turn a blind eye, while Anna’s eventual indiscretions come at a much steeper price.

It’s an opus of a story, even though the film isn’t actually that long (2 hrs, 10 minutes).

But as opposed to creating a lifeless period drama, director Joe Wright chose to turn the film into a stylistic showcase. From the first moments, when a scene transition is accomplished by splitting and rolling away the set backdrop, as if you were watching a filmed play, the audience is aware that they’re not watching a film with traditional sensibilities. Extras will freeze as if time has stopped as the main characters share a crucial moment, or an office full of clerks will stand and sit and stamp and wave paperwork in an almost choreographed sequence. At one point, a character rips a letter to shreds and tosses it into the air, which in turn becomes a hard falling snow. These are not occasional moments which will break your immersion in the film by their sudden interjection, but rather, simply some of the examples that I can recall of what was a permeating, persistent directorial presence.

Have no doubt, this is Joe Wright’s movie. As excellent as some of the performances were (Knightley was fine, Jude Law was very good as the wronged man forced at times to keep a stiff upper lip, and I was very impressed by Alicia Vikander as Kitty Shcherbatskaya ), this is Wright’s movie all the way. At times he plays with the sets like Gilliam, at other times he chooses bright primary color schemes like Argento. You’re never fully settled with watching the film merely as an epic costumed period piece, because there’s always some surrealistic flourish to come.

For me, personally, that was the highlight of the film. I enjoyed watching him play with conventions and create something unique. I can easily understand how others will be put off by it, however, it definitely makes for a non-traditional classic adaptation. As far as I’m concerned, however, it breathed life into what could otherwise have easily been another dull costumed drama.

B+

39 thoughts on “Anna Karenina

    • Yeah, I don’t know that it’s like, say, Avatar or Life of Pi or that kind of visual stunning… But it was very creative in some of the things it did on screen, that’s for sure. Very inventive. ;)

  1. I’ve heard some surprisingly poor things about this one, but I’m glad to hear that it at least has something to breathe life into it w/ Wright’s direction. I think I’ll give it a go once my finals are finished with next friday

  2. “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice” are such high quality that one could expect a vintage taste. Yet somehow I’m thinking “Moulin Rouge” without the score. The academy loves this type of thing, I see multiple Oscars ahead.

    • Nawwwww… I mean, I dunno. I dont think it was all of that. Maybe it might be worthy, but I cant envision it actually happening. It’s batting like 2/3rds on Rotten Tomatoes right now (although “Extremely Loud” last year was under 50…) We’ll see I guess, but I wouldnt put any money on it buddy. :(

  3. It’s a very gorgeous flick that starts off so well, but then suddenly, just starts to get over-long, boring, and slow. Yeah, the performances were good but that was just about all that was left for me to watch in the last-act. Good review man.

    • Thanks Dan-o. The style kept my attention. Aside from that I can totally see people zoning out. Without the clever prose and all the detail to truly fill out a massive epic, a movie adaptation of something like this is a bit hamstrung to begin with. At best you’ll get a cliff notes version period piece romance, and I’m not signing up for that either. :(

      So I can see where you’re coming from, though buddy. Sorry it was a rough one for you.

  4. She has the looks, she has the voice, she even has the name…but she continually and persistently annoys me. I seriously want her jaw, and I’m tired of all her anorexic shmucking…gahh, it’s so frustrating when actors have identifiable characters in real life! It spoils everything they try to do! This isn’t Anna Karenina, it’s “Anna Karenina played by Keira Knightley.” I’m sure it was good, Fogs, and I could see why you and lots of people would like it, but it’s not for me. Either she needs to show a zit or stop giving interviews about her weight, and then maybe I can stand her somewhere other than a poster or a magazine spread.

    Sorry for that vomit of jealousy and indignation at actors in general. Great review, that’s all that matters!! :D

    • :D HA!! That’s awesome. No sorries required, I love stuff like this.

      I’m… not… with you, necessarily here. Although her weight certainly is mildly frightening. But I’ve never had an issue with her aside from the fact that she’s not that great an actress or anything. She’s fine here, but if you’ve got a resentment towards her, yeah, this will be spoiled right out of the gate for you Liv, no doubt about it. LOL

      Fun comment though, :D Glad you enjoyed the read at least.

  5. “She’s not that great an actress” – yes, that’s true. I think what annoys me is that you would think she was a great actress, but she always disappoints me just enough to be infuriating. (I KNOW that Biel sucks, so I wouldn’t shave her head while she was asleep, I’d just refuse to give money to anything she’s in, you know?). But Knightley has this tragic look of misunderstood genius, like she’s so beautiful but still can be great!!…yada, yada…and then it all falls flat when I see her films. But I have notoriously high expectations of someone that hot who insists on taking difficult-ish roles. Not everyone can be perfect, er well, Bale can, and…Hardy, and everyone in Nolan’s films, well actually it’s Nolan-

    Yes, I have a crush on a director. Resistance is futile.

    (crap, wrong fandom. You should review that teaser trailer and then the full length one when it comes out, though! STID is going to steal Skyfall’s place in my heart I think, even if the abbreviated title sounds like a cousin of herpes)

    • Yeah, LOL. You’re all over the place there. ;) Take a play off and catch your breath on the sidelines…

      Thankfully the next Star Trek flick isnt until next year, so you dont have to have the two fight over the same crown at least!

    • $$$

      Why else do they remake anything?

      Although in fairness, this is a pretty unique take on the material. Its definitely its own spin and has an original feel.

      Plus with these timeless works of literature, are they really even “remakes”, or just additional adaptations?

  6. Stuff like what you describe here is precisely what I look for in movies. It’s one of the reasons Fight Club was my favorite movie for so long; it was one of the first movies I recall seeing that broke the 4th wall and took full advantage of the fact that it was a *movie*. Prices showing up on the screen as we scan the Narrator’s apartment — Tyler pointing to the “cigarette burn” in the corner — Tyler showing up for a split second in the background before his character even appears. I *love* this about film, and it’s really a shame more don’t use it. Movies aren’t *real*; the more a film embraces that and uses it to its benefit, the more I like the film.

    So, that said, I think I’ll probably enjoy this one. Any other movies you can think to recommend to me along these lines? I’m always searching, and feel that I’m probably oblivious to some good ones.

    • Wellllllllllll…. I dont know that I’d be quick to lump this flick in with Fight Club, Fight Club has an unmatched level of awesomeness. LOL. That said, yeah, it certainly does take liberties with the onscreen environment quite a bit.

      I dont really know of other examples that aren’t well known. The films of Terry Gilliam, Eternal Sunshine, (500) Days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim, Magnolia… none of them fit exactly, but they all have enough style to fit as an answer, I think. I’m sure there are plenty I’m forgetting. :(

      Thats probably why those films are so special though. Not a lot of movies DO that kind of thing.

      • Hey, thanks. Haven’t seen 500 Days of Summer or Magnolia, so it gives me a launchpad, at least.

  7. Period piece romantic dramas aren’t really my thing, but I like the sound of the director playing with the medium like that. Maybe I’ll check this out when it hits home video.

  8. I really liked this film, and while I enjoyed the style, objectively I’m not sure it was effective as it could have been. It was sort of distracting even though it was so beautiful. I though Knightley did really well, and I really liked Mathew MacFadyen, even though his character sucked he was hilarious about it.
    For the record, I really want this to win costumes this year. I don’t care if it’s obvious, those were intense costumes.

    • Yeah, sure I could see that. Those costumes were pretty awesome.

      The style and the material didnt seem to go hand in hand… I mean, you just dont expect that kind of thing in a period piece drama like this. I’m sure a lot of people are going to slam it, so its no surprise you found it distracting. Personally, it held my interest, and… this film needed something like that, so I was grateful. You know?

      • My main problem is that I kept trying to figure out if they were actually outside or if they were inside that looked like outside. Sometimes this was obvious… other times not so much. If they were trying to correlate St.Petersburg and/or Moscow with acing by setting it in a theater, they should have continued the obvious moves to the outside like they did the first time when Levin went out of the back of the theater obviously. The transitions only sometimes made it obvious, and since the whole thing was a big suspension of disbelief anyway so I didn’t know how much I should have been suspending. Eventually I stopped paying attention to trying to see where they lined up and just watched the film. If/when I watch it again I will pay more attention to whether they’re inside or outside and any significance it may have, though I think what Wright’s intending is pretty obvious given the story (when you’re in society, you have to act the part).
        I get you. The book is boring, not gonna lie. I started it two summers ago, and haven’t finished it yet. Some parts are really good, intense and interesting (Anna’s half), and then you cut to Levin being boring and farming and stuff, or musing about Russian society and it’s just like “please stop….” He went to these government elections and I just could not keep going. I had like two hundred pages left… I was so close, but yet so far away…..

      • I’ve never even attempted it. When I DO read, it usually is a classic, but those (that and War and Peace) have put me off due to their heft. LOL. I’m not afraid of a big book, but that is a little ridiculous.

        I’m sure the Levin stuff was more poignant once upon a time… :(

    • Yeah, I thought it was interesting, which led to mean looking favorably on it… Its definitely to Joe Wright’s credit though, I think if you take away the constant style flourishes and whatnot, you’re left with a pretty average period piece….

      As it was though, yeah, I enjoyed it.

      I’ll swing around later if I can Mark!

  9. Awesome review.
    “For me, personally, that was the highlight of the film. I enjoyed watching him play with conventions and create something unique. I can easily understand how others will be put off by it, however, it definitely makes for a non-traditional classic adaptation”

    I completely agree with you there. I immediately fell in love with the production design in this film. Fantastic job.

    • Thanks, LCR. Yeah, it was the standout element of the film for me. I’m not typically a fan of period piece romances, so for this film to hold my attention so well, it was something of note! :D

      Glad you agree!

  10. Pingback: Anna Karenina Review: Highly Stylized Soap | Rorschach Reviews

  11. Pingback: Anna Karenina | The Soul of the Plot

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