110-Keira-Knightley-Anna-KareninaAnna Karenina is a lush, beautiful, stylized film about succumbing to sexual flame and the complicated relationships of infidelity that tear a beautiful woman apart. The themes of love, lust, and forgiveness are depicted in the opulence of aristocratic society in late 19th century tsarist Russia. If you are expecting an experience like Dr. Zhivago, forget it. This is a heavily stylized rendition played as a stage within a stage, with overlapping realms of reality that may leave you bewildered (admitted by two moviegoers who went with me) until you work your way into the story. If you like art films, you’ll be fine. If you like linear plot lines, well, read a synopsis of the novel and maybe have shot of vodka before you go.

Anna KareninaIt took the genius of Tom Stoppard to condense 350,000 words of Tolstoy’s 1877 novel into 130 minutes of screenplay. Director Joe Wright took a boldly creative approach to this film, with a style reminiscent of Moulin Rouge (directed by Baz Luhrmann.) Life in Russian aristocracy had elements of theater, played out for the audience of high society, so Wright films the scenes on an actual stage, with aristocrats in the audience, whom we watch as they watch. The action alternates between this stage, where characters also move behind the curtains, into other realms of reality, such as a moving train, or they step from backstage into a snowscape that looks like a Magritte painting.

The princesses and counts wear gorgeous costumes for the balls and visits to the opera, all filmed in a luminous palette. The lavish Russian fashion and furs suit Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina well, lending some softness to her angular frame, while the hats and veils accentuate her strong jawline. But she’s much more than a clotheshorse in this period piece, having developed her acting chops since Pirates of the Caribbean, as anyone who saw her performance as a mental patient in A Dangerous Method can testify.

Anna’s husband, Karenin, played by Jude Law, is a moralistic man, stiff, proper, but meticulously fair. He warns his wayward wife of the consequences of choosing sin and urges her to pray. He is hard to like as a husband but the kind of incorruptible civil servant one might even wish for. This is a serious role beyond Law’s pretty-boy past, for which he even shaves his locks into a receding hairline.

The foil to his sternness is Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, whose ebullience borders on wacky as he dance steps through his office, twirling out of one jacket into another while his stage-rouged employees stamp papers in rhythmic unison. Oblonsky’s near-manic smile is a definite change of demeanor for Matthew Macfadyen from his aloof Darcy, opposite Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, and his tough competence as an MI5 officer in the spy series known to British audiences as Spooks, and as MI5 to stateside Netflix aficionados.

One of Anna Karenina’s most magical scenes is the elegant ball during which Count Vronsky first pursues Anna in a mesmerizing waltz, gliding with her between couples frozen in motion, then whirling her through time and space in a tempo that increases as the spark between them ignites into a consuming blaze.

What was the attraction? Why does a good woman who wants to be a dutiful wife and mother succumb to the charms of a white uniform and a wispy moustache? Admittedly Anna’s husband, 20 years her senior, is cold, albeit respected. When her libido explodes into a raging flame, it overwhelms Anna, burning relationships in all directions. The ensuing drama is the stuff of tragedy.

How will this film be understood by today’s young moviegoers? I am guessing that the morality of Leo Tolstoy borders on incomprehensible for many of them, since half of them grew up with divorced parents and nearly half of America’s births today take place outside marriage. It may be a stretch for young adults to fathom the gravity of societal disapproval for infidelity that provides the premise for this drama, let alone the moral issues from an eternal perspective.

The complexity of the relationships is incredibly difficult to portray adequately in such a short film. Some critics have slammed it for not delving deeply enough into character development. Admittedly, unpacking the conflicted motivation of Anna Karenina would have helped the story, justifying its end. Stylized filmmaking is an inventive way to lift the narrative into a non-literal, evocative art form, but it can’t replace storytelling. Some critics snipe that this is a “director’s film,” in which style outshines content.

All told, Anna Karenina offers a rich cinematic experience, praiseworthy in accomplishing the near-impossible compression of Tolstoy’s sprawling novel into a work of beauty. But does it do it justice? There’s a huge difference between Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice, in which he also directed Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, and the six-part BBC version our family has watched annually for more than a decade. Wright’s much shorter film does Jane Austen’s book justice, even for devoted Austen fans who miss the parts omitted. Those of us who love books are seldom satisfied with the film version, one notable exception being the 1981 British 11-part series on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. This may be one of the few times a novel has been filmed not just adequately, but possibly even more evocatively than the book, but the palette of 11 parts is obviously so much broader. However, the disappointment of the 2008 film version was not due to its length. Anna Karenina is highly commendable as exquisite artistry. But to ward off attacks from purists, I blushingly admit I haven’t read the entire book yet.

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9 replies to this post
  1. Anything written by Barbara Elliott I'll read at least twice, so, many thanks!

    A Scots landlord of mine, long dead, took his elderly mother to see the 1935 Garbo version, the very first film she had ever seen. In the Dundee cinema-house, perhaps not surprisingly, the projectionist was drunk and reversed the second and third reel; so the heroine flung herself under a train and then mysteriously came back to life. "I cannae see the point of aw' this, Jimmy," she complained. "It disnae mak' sense!" She never bothered to see another movie.

    So, yes, it can be a confusing story!

  2. Perhaps that was a whiskey-inspired retelling of the story as a tale of resurrection and second chances in an art form before its time. The projectionist should be hailed as a cinematic genius!

  3. Ah! Ah! What an idea! Too bad the projectionist is long forgotten. Imagine his other great screenings: Dorothy returns to Kansas, presumably hates it, and goes back to Oz. Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid fly from Casablanca, then presumably decide it wasn't so bad and go back to hang out in the Resistance with Bogie and Claude Rains. In "1776" Ben and Tom and the guys try independence and return to live under good ol' King George! It would surely, however, screw up the original happy ending to "Roots."

  4. Ooh, ooh, I have more! Reversing the second and third reels offers tantalizing possibilities. In "The Mission", Jeremy Irons as Fr. Gabriel appears to have returned from the dead, convincing the bishop to let the missions with the musical natives continue. "Much Ado About Nothing," instead of ending with the happy wedding of Claudio and Hero, becomes a tragedy of betrayal, while Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson continue in their battle of wits, never to be united. In "Out of Africa" Robert Redford makes it out of the plane crash, and he and Meryl Streep live an idyllic existence alternating between safaris and evenings at her farm as she tells after-dinner stories.

  5. Keira Knightley as Anna is enough to keep me from seeing it. Never a big fan of hers, especially after making the mistake of watching the newer Hollywood attempt at Pride & Prejudice ~ ugh. Between her cast as the lead role and it being a Hollywood version of an epic classic, I can't begin to muster any enthusiasm for it. Maybe, just maybe, when I can get it for free on DVD at my library a year from now, I might give it a go ~ but probably not.

  6. "Wright’s much shorter film does Jane Austen’s book justice, even for devoted Austen fans who miss the parts omitted."

    Can't agree with that. I think of it as Wright's Rhapsody on Pride and Prejudice. As a film, it was good, it was sumptuous, but it was nearly anti-Austen. It felt more like a Bronte sisters novel. Austen is famously un-rhapsodic, even when treating of true love. "…and they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life," as the narrator says in Sense and Sensibility.

    The Bennet parents are completely defanged – they cause almost no problems. Mr. Bennet apologizes to Mary after criticizing her piano playing, for pete's sake. With no real obstacles between them, Lady Catherine De Bourgh being dispensed with very quickly, there's no real reason why Elizabeth and Darcy can't be together and they don't really earn their happiness. In Austen's books, the heros and heroines have to make difficult choices and are obstructed by real negligence and even malice of others which their courage, insight and virtue must overcome.

    The movie has an incredibly romantic feeling, what with Darcy walking over the moors – I mean, hillside – in the early morning fog at the end. He and Elizabeth are soul mates. Now, Jane Austen meant them for a match, but not in a disembodied, no-restrictions-or-obligations-due-to-society way.

    As I say, taken on its own terms, the movie was ravishing. The scene of the dance at Netherfield was brilliant. As a whole, the movie made the BBC mini-series look plodding and pedantic in comparison. Wright does have tremendous style.

    But, I wish he would ravish someone else.

    As to Tolstoy – I'm less protective of him than Austen, so probably won't care as much. Also, I've got confidence in Stoppard. I've been debating whether to see the movie because I'm only halfway through the novel and I didn't want to know the end through the movie. However, it's also better to see something that will doubtlessly be very cinematic in an actual theater. Your review makes me think it will be worth it to take a chance on it.


  7. I fully concur that Donald Sutherland's Mr. Bennet is a complete disappointment in the Wright rendition of "Pride and Prejudice," particularly in light of comparison to the BBC version. On the other hand, the mother in the mini-series is annoyingly over the top. You are right, of course, that the misty morning conclusion is more Wright's invention than Austen's, but wasn't it lovely? Go see Anna Karenina just for the imaginative beauty, if nothing else.

  8. Well, I wasn't blaming Sutherland the actor…he plays the part that was written & directed. I blame the director for making the Bennets into an improbably sitcommish quirky, but lovable family – Austen was much harsher, much more realistic in her assessment of people. Mrs. Bennet may escape some culpability through lack of self-awareness, but her behavior truly obstructs the welfare of her children.

    I agree, Alison Steadman's Mrs. Bennet was one-note screeching. Although, the more I have watched that mini-series, the fewer performances I have admired, making me inclined to blame the director (or maybe the executive producers, TV operating a bit differently than film), for the poor quality.

    The "loveliness" of Wright's invention is what I'm objecting to. It is truly lovely, I understand that. My argument is simply that the rhapsodic loveliness is an imposition or a hijacking of Austen's sensibility. It is not representative of her art.

    But, that's some hard-headedness. I do get Mr. Wright's cinematic vision and creativity.

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