Home » Arthouse Report » Anna Karenina (2012)
         

Anna Karenina (2012)

I find Joe Wright to be a very frustrating filmmaker. The first film of his that I saw was Hanna, a very ambitious and beautiful film that tripped and broke its neck in the last two minutes. Then I sat through his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, another very beautiful film that utterly failed in doing justice to the source material.

Basically, Wright frustrates me because he’s a visually gifted filmmaker with a great deal of creativity and ambition, yet his reach continues to exceed his grasp. He appears to be one or those auteurs with superb visual flair, but subpar skills as a storyteller.

As if to prove my point, Wright went and made an adaptation of Anna Karenina, crafting a film with many of the same failings as his attempt at Pride and Prejudice.

(Full disclosure: Unlike Pride and Prejudice, I cannot claim any prior knowledge of this film’s source text.)

One of my main complaints about the previous film was that Wright focused way too much on the sets and costumes, such that the characters and the story got pushed to the wayside. The scenery was chewing the actors, if you will, instead of the other way around. In this film, however, that problem is taken to a whole ‘nother level.

Wright seems to present the story as a bizarre kind of stage play. The whole film seems to be set inside a theater with an infinite amount of space, though it’s walled on every side (if that makes any sense). More than that, the setting goes far beyond the stage itself, extending out into the audience, the lobby, the side stage, the rafters, the basement, and everyplace in between.

On the one hand, this approach was very novel. It’s creative, it’s interesting to watch, and it lends the film a very unique flavor. On the other hand, it’s incredibly distracting. The sets are so blatantly fake that the whole film takes on a very artificial feeling. Even worse, the characters interact with the scenery in such a way that it begs the question of how aware they are of their surroundings. So much of the stage’s inner workings are visible that suspending disbelief is impossible. Even worse, the film spends so much time changing sets and costumes that some scene transitions take up more screen time than the scenes themselves.

Worst of all, I couldn’t understand what this theatre motif did for the story. It didn’t seem to serve any kind of thematic purpose, it was just there to look pretty. Basically, it isn’t a device used to illuminate or enhance the story, it’s a gimmick that obscures the story. Far more importantly, it obscures the reason why Anna and Vronsky ever fell in love to begin with. I’ll be getting back to that point later.

With all of that said, the visuals in this film are DAMN pretty. The costumes are wonderful, the colors are expertly used, the set design is utterly fantastic, and the camerawork is nothing short of magical. The choreography and editing are absolutely mind-blowing, such that there are one-take scenes that will leave your jaw on the floor. Of course, the outstanding choreography extends to the fantastic dance sequences as well.

You know what this film reminds me of? A Baz Luhrmann film. This movie used live theatre, music, dancing, and classical dialogue as prominent motifs, which basically makes it the entire “Red Curtain Trilogy” rolled into one movie. And much like Luhrmann’s previous work, Wright films this movie in such a way that the story gets drowned out by all the beautiful yet incoherent visuals, as well as the hammy overacting from the cast.

There are so many great actors in this cast, but their performances are infected by the ostentatious attitude of this film. Some actors are utterly wasted, impossible to take seriously because their characters are portrayed in such a melodramatic fashion (Kelly Mcdonald and Aaron Taylor-Johnson come to mind). Other actors try to fight the tide, only to give such low-key performances in such minor roles that they also get swept away (see: Olivia Williams and Emily Watson).

The standout of the cast is easily Jude Law, who brings a quiet dignity to the cuckolded Alexei Karenin. When Karenin finally learns of the plot and starts to exert some amount of control over the story, Law truly commands the screen. Then again, I suppose it helps that the set dressing finally started to back off a bit and let the characters tell their story after the first hour.

Unfortunately, the movie had already failed by that point. The film, after all, is about the love affair between Anna and Vronsky. When the film so badly glosses over what led these characters to fall in love in the first place, there’s no walking away from that damage. No matter how much better the film gets, it’s just building on a rotten foundation at that point.

Of course, one of the story’s main themes is about the irrational nature of love. “You can’t ask why about love,” as Vronsky said. And maybe that’s true. But as a filmgoer and a critic, I can, should, and will ask why about the motivations of our main characters.

This brings me to one of my main problems with the story, and one of my main problems with stories about infidelity in general: An infidelity story requires a love triangle, and it is impossible for all three characters in that triangle to be sympathetic. It just can’t be done. Either the spouse or the main character has to be an asshole, otherwise there’s no reason to commit adultery in the first place. This is why Fatal Attraction worked so well, because it embraced the fact that its lead character was an asshole and made him suffer for it.

Similarly, Anna is a character who jeopardized her marriage and her beloved son for absolutely no reason. The difference is that we’re supposed to sympathize with her and feel sorry when she commits suicide at the end (Oh, I’m sorry. Did I spoil a 150-year-old work of classic Russian literature?). The sad truth is, that’s not going to happen.

This is ultimately the big problem with Keira Knightley in this picture. Much like her performance in Pride and Prejudice, there’s something that just seems off about Knightley in this role, despite the fact that she looks like a perfect fit on paper. The difference is that Lizzy Bennet was a witty and likeable character to begin with. The foolish, flighty Anna Karenina needs someone far more charismatic than Knightley to get any sympathy from the audience.

In all honesty, I was much more taken with the film’s other prominent love story. I refer to the romance between Kitty (a relative of Anna’s by marriage, played by Alicia Vikander) and Levin (played by Domhnall Gleeson). The two of them love each other, but Kitty turns down his marriage proposal in favor of Vronsky. Yes, the same Vronsky who later went sleeping with Anna.

Their hearts utterly broken, Levin and Kitty go on their own separate ways to contemplate the nature of love, the practicality of marriage, their places in Russian society, and other such matters. Of course, they ultimately get back together and live out their happily ever after. It’s a neat little heartwarming counterpoint to the tragic and senseless main story. It also helps that the characters are nicely developed and solidly portrayed. The story is straightforward, but I found its execution to be far more interesting than that of the main plot.

When all is said and done, Anna Karenina (2012) is all about the visuals. Purely in terms of technical achievement, this is easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Every frame of this movie is so goddamned beautiful, I wish that was enough for a recommendation in itself. Unfortunately, Joe Wright violates one of the most fundamental rules of filmmaking: Visual splendor should be used as a means of storytelling, not as an end in itself. The film is outright masturbatory in its “live theatre” gimmick, which distracts greatly from the main story.

I’m honestly quite torn about whether or not to recommend the movie, so I’ll propose this compromise: Read the book (it’s public domain, so finding a cheap or free copy should be no problem) and buy a kaleidoscope. You get the original classic story and some pretty incoherent images, all for a fraction of the time and cost.

2 Comments

  1. Ping from Joshua:

    Although I’d say that Atonement may be Wright’s best film, I really doubt that you’d enjoy it, but you could still try, even if it has Knightly in another starring role once again.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Yeah, I just don’t seem to get Knightley as an actress. Yes, she was solid in the first Pirates movie (let’s not hold the other two against her). Also, she was in Never Let Me Go, one of my favorite films from 2010.

    But did she really bring anything unique to her roles in those films? Did she do anything that couldn’t have been done by any other pretty face her age? I’d argue not.

Leave a Reply