Anna Karenina

© 2013 Ray Wong

First I must admit that I know not much about the classic novel by Leo Tolstoy, the various cinematic versions before director Joe Wright's interpretation, or basic Russian history. So, I am basically reviewing this as an ignorant American and from a pure cinematic point of view.

On her way to visit her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) in Moscow, aristocrat Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of Russia's senior bureaucrat Karenin (Jude Law), fatefully meets young, charming Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Thompson). A high-society married woman with a young son, Anna resists Vronsky's seduction for as long as she can.

Eventually, Anna and Vronsky become secret lovers -- well,  not so secretly, as their social circles begin to gossip about their illicit love affairs. The words finally reach Karenin's ear. Deeply hurt, Karenin warns Anna of the dire consequences of her actions. Driven by a strong desire to escape her duties, her loveless marriage, and the chains of the society's scorn, Anna decides to leave everything behind and try to divorce Karenin, who in turn forbids her to see her son again.

The torrid love affair between Anna and Vronsky turns into mundanity as Anna is driven mad with her desire to see her son again, and the feeling of being trapped. Her pregnancy with Vronsky's child gradually sinks Anna in a deep depression, as she starts to suspect Vronsky's unfaithfulness.

Keira Knightley (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) usually excels in period dramas, as her classic beauty, poise, and solid performance help to transport us to worlds in the past. As Anna, Knightley has shown a different side of her as her character descends into self-loath and madness. This Anna starts out sympathetic and warm and interesting, but as she sinks deeper into the emotional trauma of her own making, she becomes a much more unlikable character. Ms. Knightley walks a fine line here. It's difficult to not like Knightely as this beautiful woman on screen, but my gut tells me that I should hate her.

The men in her life are played deftly by Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) and Matthew Macfadyen (The Three Musketeers). Law in particular is excellent as Karenina -- looking older and balding, Law conveys the inner conflicts of Karenina rather convincingly, showing great care and love for Anna but also resentment and hurt. Macfadyen is light and airy as Anna's brother Oblonsky, a family man who likes to wander. Unfortunately, the most important man in Anna's life, Count Vronsky, is played by handsome but wooden Aaron Taylor-Thompson (Kick-Ass). Thompson is of the right age, but he looks entire too soft and pretty to play a man that captures Anna's heart. Worse, Thompson plays Vronsky without much flare or personality.

The women in Anna's life are played lovelily by Kelly Macdonald (Brave) as her long-suffering sister-in-law Dolly, and Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as naive but kind-hearted Kitty. As Kitty's suitor, Domhnall Gleeson (True Grit) gives one of the most affecting performances in the cast.

Adapted from Tokstoy's massive classic, the screenplay by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) has the thankless job of streamlining the writer's complex and layered social-conscious novel into a 129-minute movie. Stoppard takes a risk by making Anna an unlikeable character, almost a villain in a sense that the men and women in her life are hurt and damaged in her wake. Such a risk could have been minimized had Stoppard made us relate and understand Anna better. Unfortunately, more often than not we're kept at arm's length from truly knowing Anna.

The story fares better when it focuses on the subplot of Levin and Kitty. As a juxtaposition of Anna's reckless love affair with Vronsky, the relationship between Levin and Kitty is developed gradually and with great care and subtlety. The trouble is that when the subplot resonates with the audiences better than the main plot, something isn't quite right.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) is no stranger to sweeping period drama with larger than life characters. As usual, Wright's vision is stunningly realized with gorgeous cinematography, costumes and period details. However, he's made a fatal mistake of setting the story in a theater setting. The result is that the movie feels emotionally detached, as the audiences are constantly reminded that we're watching a play instead of something more tangible and real. The theatrical style sounds interesting in theory but in actuality, it strips the story of its emotional potency and keeps us away from the characters. Don't get me wrong, the visuals and the production designs are top-notch; but that's the problem, we are too aware of them that they become distractions, keeping us from totally engaged with the characters and story.

Anna Karenina could have been an amazing film if Joe Wright had taken a more naturalistic approach instead of trying to stylize it so extremely. Also, the risk of making Anna less sympathetic doesn't pay off at the end. It really is a shame.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Aaron Taylor-Thompson, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Emily Watson
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Tom Stoppard (based on novel by Leo Tolstoy)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating:  R for sexuality and violence
Running Time: 129 minutes 


Script - 6
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 8

Total - 7.2 out of 10.0 

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