Over the past 100+ years there have been no fewer than 25 renditions of the classic Leo Tolstoy novel - in silent films, in the “talkies” and on television - about a woman, a Russian aristocrat (Keira Knightley), who risks everything in her life – wealth, family, children, friends, social status – in an affair with the notorious womanizing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Now, we get the latest take on this oft-told tale from director Joe Wright as he tells the tragic story of “Anna Karenina.”
I have seen one or two of the many versions of the Tolstoy tale, the most memorable and iconic being the terrific, moody 1935 “Anna Karenina,” starring Greta Garbo in the title role. The difference between the 30s “Anna K” and its 2012 reinvention is Anna. With Garbo, Anna is warm and loving and torn between loyalty to husband and family and her passion for the charming count. There is a charisma in her character and performance that is lacking in Keira Knightley’s interpretation of Anna. Her Karenina is selfish and not happy with her dull, loveless marriage with her husband (Jude Law), and seems to jump at the chance to bed Count Vronsky. I never gained sympathy for Anna and her self inflicted woes.
Production, though, starts off with a bang as the filmmakers put all their ducks in a row and introducing the principle characters in a whirlwind of set and costume transitions that take place before your eyes. The rapid, almost manic pace in the film’s first third is mesmerizing to watch – kind of like Peter Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books.” But, once the plot thickens and puts its focus on Anna, the production takes on a more conventional look, alternating from stage action to big exteriors then back to the theater stage. The energy and verve of the beginning of “Anna” is lost as Anna’s tragic life unfolds, centering on her, to its foreshadowed conclusion.
Costume and period sets are stunning as is the skilled cinematography, particularly during the elaborate scene and costume transitions early on. Unfortunately, the characters are less than fully developed with Aaron Taylor-Johnson wooden as the supposedly sexy Count Vronsky. Matthew Macfayden as Anna’s brother Oblonsky grabs your interest right away but becomes background only as the film plays out. The hugely talented supporting cast is underutilized and given caricature rather than character roles.
Like the oft made and remade “Les Miserable” (the highly anticipated Hugh Jackman/Anne Hathaway/Russell Crowe big budget musical rendition comes to us this holiday season), “Anna Karenina” is its own film, good or bad – or indifferent. I give it a C+.
When her brother Oblonsky's (Matthew Macfadyen, 2005's "Pride & Prejudice's" Mr. Darcy) roving eye upends his household, his sister travels to Moscow from St. Petersburg to comfort her pregnant sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald, HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire') and convince her that she is still loved by her husband. But a meeting with dashing army officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, "Kick-Ass," "Savages") will have her follow in her brother's footsteps with far more dire consequences for "Anna Karenina."
Director Joe Wright ("Atonement," "Hanna") has been on a roll with literary adaptations starring Kiera Knightley ("Atonement," "A Dangerous Method"). This, their third collaboration, however is only half successful. Wright introduces his story theatrically, players on a stage with impressive production design which is reconfigured during equally impressive choreographed camera work and it is exhilarating. But two things cause his film to go awry - his awkward abandonment of the device in segueing to the countryside to continue landowner Levin's (Domhnall Gleeson, "Harry Potter's" Bill Weasley, "Dredd 3D") story and the gradual slowing down of the pace as Anna spirals downward. "Anna Karenina" swoops you up for its first half, then unceremoniously dumps you on the ground.
The story is, of course, well known, Leo Tolstoy's novel having been adapted many times since the earliest days of cinema (Garbo starred in both a silent and sound version). The heroine's fate is heavily foreshadowed. She asks her husband Karenin (Jude Law, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"), a serious minded government official, if he believes her brother's infatuation will blow over and he informs her that sin always has a price. Later, having traveled by train in the same compartment as Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams, "The Ghost Writer," "Hanna"), her future lover's mother, Anna is horrified when a railroad worker is killed on the tracks. In keeping with Tolstoy's social subtext of the aristocracy and the peasantry, the young Count presses money into the hands of an official for the poor man's family, a gesture meant to impress Anna.
Anna succeeds in calming Dolly, but has the opposite effect on Dolly's younger sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander, "A Royal Affair"), who up until now has been accepting Vronsky's attentions more seriously than he has extended them. Pressed by her family to stay for a ball, Anna dashes Kitty's expectations of a proposal when Vronsky clearly falls for the married woman. At first Anna genuinely resists, but when he follows her to St. Petersburg her resistance wavers. Her husband won't believe the unthinkable until she tells him for herself and her passion is so all-consuming she even gives up her young son, Sergei, to be with Vronsky.
Wright begins his film with a breathless pace, quickly introducing characters and their relationships with each other in an ever evolving stage set and the whirling of his costumed actors as they move from one situation to the next makes his film feel like a musical where no songs are sung. It's giddy making, especially when he uses one of his signature long takes and one imagines what is happening just outside the frame. It's Aleksandr Sokurov's "Russian Ark" with more variety and more melodrama.
But when Oblonsky's friend Lenin, who had come to the city to propose to Kitty only to be awkwardly turned down in her anticipation of Vronsky's offer, returns to his home, the back of Wright's stage simply dissolves into a real field and from that point on, the theatrical device is only used in fits and starts (ironically, Wright ends by finally attempting to incorporate Levin's home onto the stage). As Anna's scandalous behavior becomes more and more public, she's framed more and more statically in boxy rooms. Perhaps Wright meant to visually imprison her but instead he's stifled his film. I even found a subplot of Levin's unclear in the slow moving second half whereas far more action fell easily into place in the film's first.
Knightley is a good enough Karenina, but having the air sucked out of the film around her does her no favors. Instead of any empathy for the character in general, I found myself instead reacting to the blatant sexism of Tolstoy's tale (adapted by Tom Stoppard, "Shakespeare in Love"). Aaron Taylor-Johnson is actually a more sympathetic character, giving Vronsky depth of passion and compassion. And what a wonderfully weird bit of casting in taking the sexy lead of a decade ago and putting him and his receding hairline in the stick-in-the-mud role of the strict moralist Karenin. Macfadyen, Gleeson and Vikander are colorful support, but bigger names like Olivia Williams and especially Emily Watson as Countess Lydia Ivanova, are pretty much wasted.
It speaks volumes that "Anna Karenina's" set up is far more engaging than its tragic melodrama, which fails to engage emotionally. Still, until it falters, the imagination used in this production is something to behold.
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