Mark Reviews Movies

Anna Karenina (2012)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality and violence)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 11/16/12 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 15, 2012

It's slightly off-putting at first to see Leo Tolstoy's novel, which is well-regarded for its realism, interpreted in such a representational way. Director Joe Wright imagines the world of Imperial Russia in the 1870s as theater—both the art and the physical space (That the screenplay is written by the playwright Tom Stoppard might have something to do with this). The stylistic setup declares from the start that Anna Karenina is not an adaptation that cares about the novel's form or ideas; this is one that will primarily concern itself with the drama on the surface of Tolstoy's tome.

The action extends beyond the frame of the proscenium, though, as the house at different times becomes a hall for a major party and the stands for the audience of a horse race (The race itself travels across the stage and then into some strange void), the catwalks above the stage house a revolutionary living in poverty, and the players travel through the wings to go from one home to another. A trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow is only some insert shots of the characters sitting on a rocking set and a few quick cuts of a model train away.

The result is a version of Tolstoy's story that moves at a breakneck pace with nary a moment diverted to any point or detail that does not have something to do with the central narrative or thematic content (Even the book's famous opening is missing, because, here, the individual trumps families—happy or unhappy). Despite this, the film feels complete and, even though it might not possess Tolstoy's intellectual musings on the various subjects at hand, true to the source.

The year is 1874, and the aristocracy in Russia still holds sway. The opening montage of events literally sets the stage, and we eventually see Anna (Keira Knightley) preparing to leave her home in St. Petersburg to visit her brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) and sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). The two are undergoing a difficult marital problem, as Dolly has learned that her husband has been unfaithful with the family's governess. Anna has decided to try to bring Dolly to her senses; no matter what the circumstances, a divorce for her would mean a separation from her children and a black mark on her in society. Anna's husband Alexei (Jude Law), an official with the government and two decades her senior, is disappointed that his wife would, in essence, excuse infidelity.

While away in Moscow, Anna meets another Alexei—a military officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). He is infatuated with her, and even though she has been a faithful wife since she married at 18, Anna cannot help but be drawn to him. She calls that desire her "demon," and soon the aristocracy is abuzz with gossip of Anna and Vronsky, particularly how vulgar it is that she puts on what they deem a show of indecisiveness in public.

Meanwhile, Stiva's friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is heartbroken when Dolly's sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) rejects his marriage proposal. She had hoped to marry Vronsky, and she is devastated when Anna and the officer begin their coy dance. Levin returns to his family farm to work with his field hands and gain some perspective, while Kitty grows cynical of love.

Wright's stagecraft might seem an ostentatious gimmick for its own sake at first, but it quickly grows on us, especially as the film finds its rhythm once the truly showy sequences of chorus members changing the scene around the central actors become a memory (They're entertaining but entirely useless except as a way to emphasize the film's stylistic form). There is, of course, no structural reason for the stage in terms of narrative—Melanie Oliver's editing is, after all, more responsible for the film's allegro tempo than Wright's staging—but as a metaphor for the aristocratic world wherein the majority of the film takes place, it has some appreciated if obvious bite (Wright ensures his intentions by juxtaposing natural environments when Levin returns to his home in the country).

It's especially successful during a party when Anna arrives as Vronsky leaves, and the chatty women giggle in a cluster that gives them the appearance of a single unit as opposed to individuals. Everything in this world is basically a pantomime of humanity. A few scenes between Anna and her son (Oskar McNamara) take place within a smaller frame on the larger stage—more intimate and ideal. The performances (save for Macfadyen, whose Stiva is meant to be a fool) are in that vein, as well—avoiding histrionics no matter how elevated the melodrama becomes.

It's a simpler telling, yes, but still an effective one. Wright's theatrical device forces us to consider the story's symbolism (the wounded horse—especially how Vronsky treats it—and the wheels of a train—how they always mean freedom for Anna but how her definition of what freedom means changes over the course of the story) while still allowing the characters' internal conflict between what is best for them and what is best for others (Alexei's grappling with forgiveness is especially potent, while Anna's downfall to a self-imposed paradox comes close enough to catharsis) to breathe. The novel features one of the most famous endings in history, and Anna Karenina has a sense of propulsion that matches the instrument of that tragedy.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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