Anna Karenina

<em>Anna Karenina</em>

Mediocre movies are all alike; bad movies are each bad in their own unique way.

The bad movies come from people who just don’t know what they’re doing, or have had tremendously bad luck. The mediocre movies, more often, are from the talented who have lost the plot completely, and that is the real problem with Joe Wright‘s Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy‘s other masterpiece is not the easiest thing in the world to adapt, not only because of its length but also because of the temptation to let the built-in melodrama overshadow the rest of the material — a trap Wright has walked into with both eyes wide open.

Wright, who is no stranger to adapting classics, has made the bold choice to make a heavily theatrical piece of soap opera as Anna Karenina. He’s not the first to make that mistake, but that supreme misconception in how the source material works weighs down the entire film, even if you’re not familiar with the book.

Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is a fashionable woman in fashionable 19th-century Russian life, married like many women her age by arrangement to a man of prospects; in this case, to bureaucrat Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who only has eyes for his career and not his wife. Summoned away from home to help save the marriage of her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), who has been caught cheating on his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), she gets her first taste of the rich emotional life she has until then done without when she meets the rich and dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

The apparent melodrama of Anna Karenina, which Tolstoy turned into art, makes it easy to craft real melodrama out of it. Which is what everyone has done in the four tries previous at Anna. Wright does them all one better.

Choosing to stage his film as a play being observed by an audience, a play which from time to time switches to the real world, as Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard turn the ultimate naturalist into something as artificial as they can devise. The ill-fit that choice has with its story is apparent in the seeming schizophrenia of Wright’s stage. Ostensibly the split is between the fake world of “civilized” life and the real world of peasant farmers, but as time goes on, Wright seems to arbitrarily decide on the look from scene to scene, depending on his feeling at that moment.

On a visceral level, it’s fantastic. Seamus McGarvey‘s (The Avengers) photography and Sarah Greenwood‘s production design create a sumptuous look — strongly influenced by the stagey feel of My Fair Lady, right down to the horse scene — which results in one of 2012’s best-looking films. One which works better than it should.

But all to naught, because Wright doesn’t have a good grasp on the material, and that lack ultimately dooms the film, as surely as Anna’s choices have doomed her.

Ignoring the inner life of the characters, Wright instead does what all of the other adaptations do and focuses on the affair between Anna and Vronsky and the pain it causes with the others in their lives — notably, Anna’s distant husband and Vronsky’s fiancé Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who also happens to be one of Anna’s best friends. In the original, this works because it is counterpointed by the other relationships around it — the philanderer Oblonsky and his wife, who puts up with it (unlike Karenin), and the naive Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who truly loves Kitty and cares nothing for conquest or other earthly pleasures.

Much of this is dumped out of Wright’s film to make room for Anna’s constant angst once she chooses to leave her husband and live openly as Vronsky’s mistress. She turns from a conflicted and unloved woman to a Lifetime stereotype, swinging wildly between loving and suspecting Vronsky and gradually convincing herself she truly has nothing to live for. Because, unlike Levin and Kitty, she and Vronsky have picked the wrong type of love and paid the price for it.

Which is impossible to get from the film, as everyone but Anna and Vronsky and their problems are sent to the sidelines to make room for more melodrama and screaming. Which naturally removes all context from the film and turns the plot from art into something less than even entertainment.

You don’t have to be familiar with the source material for the film to have problems; even if you don’t know the book, the problems with the conception can be felt in the way it refuses to hang together. Everyone is doing their best, and the people making this film are very good at what they do. But the film they are making is not the one they should be making, and unfortunately, no one seemed to realize it.

Cast: Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina; Jude Law as Alexei Karenin; Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky; Kelly Macdonald as Dolly; Matthew Macfayden as Oblonsky; Domhnall Gleeson as Levin; Ruth Wilson as Princess Betsy; Alicia Vikander as Kitty; Olivia Williams as Countess Vronsky.

(Working Title Films --; Focus Features --; Anna Karenina --; Anna Karenina (Facebook) --
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Review by . Review posted Monday, February 25th, 2013. Filed under Reviews.

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