Film review: Anna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina
StudioCanal, Working Title Films

STARRING Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald
WRITTEN BY Tom Stoppard, based on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
PRODUCED BY Tim Bevan, Paul Webster

SHOT BY Seamus McGarvey
EDITED BY Melanie Ann Oliver
MUSIC BY Dario Marianelli
DISTRIBUTED BY Universal Pictures

Screened 2012-11-14

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was published serially in The Russian Messenger from 1873-1877, an aesthete publication that brought other beloved old Russians to the public like Dostoevsky, Turgenev, the nigh-mentioned Saltykov.. Half of the story belongs to Anna Karenina, the beautiful wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a man who substituted personality with church and state and whom Anna married when she was too young to understand the risks of allying herself with a man impotent to Passion and The Passionate. She meets the dashing Count Vronsky and carries on an affair which brings public disgrace and drives her to act on the deepest despair.

This will be the third Anna film adaptation I’ve seen, and so far they all get it wrong. Promotional material for this film, at least, calls it “one of the greatest love stories of all time.” However it is not about Anna & Vronsky’s love but about something unanswered within Anna, the same quality that ruled Emma Bovary: “the itch,” idle restlessness – and more, a sense of her own worth; Anna knows she is worth more than Alexei, and feels that he deserves his fate. Her relationship with Vronsky is not magical; two pretty and largely idle individuals who led relatively easy lives are drawn into an affair that cannot help but lead to paranoia, isolation, death. The only way this story gains the proper perspective is to witness its juxtaposition against the more substantial emotional journey of Levin, Tolstoy’s doppelgänger, star of the other 400+ pages. It is Levin who leads an uncompromised existence, devoid of hypocrisy. It is the corrupted Anna who tempts Levin in their single scene together. It’s not that Anna doesn’t have a heart, or is not worth mourning, but let’s call her like we see her: a casualty of decadence. Wright’s production could hardly be more decadent and thereby more at odds with any of Tolstoy’s philosophy – though this unholy disparity piques my curiosity, and it probably shouldn’t, in the same way that Baz’s very weird and stupidly epic looking translation of Gatsby piques; it is so off the mark it cannot help be utterly new.

I suppose an adaptation is an adaptation and is more representative of the living filmmaker than of any source material, but Keira Knightley, whom I have nothing against, is simply miscast. Anna must be a creature of pure, pheromone-induced allure, and plenty of men could walk by Keira without becoming entranced – no offense Keira, but you know what I’m talking about. Meanwhile there are certain women who are sorceresses by birth: women like Emmanuelle Beart, Juliette Binoche, Delphine Seyrig, Jeanne Moreau.. and plenty of actresses outside of France too – like, oh, Aishwarya Rai, Monica Bellucci, Eva Green, Jennifer Connolly, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Gong Li, Claudia Cardinale, Julie Christie, Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot (impossible to stay away from France). It may sound ridiculous but I’d have been interested in seeing even Angelina Jolie in the role. Just making my point here: Anna radiates sensuality and indulgence; Keira, for all of her talents, does not. Somehow I see Keira as a person who’d be better off having fun, not playing the diva. But I’ve been wrong before.

If beauty is power then Anna Karenina is a formidable force, coveted and desired by men and intimidated by women, and it is Anna’s innocence regarding this power which endears us to her – for instance, Anna is quite unaware that her initial flirtation with Vronsky plunges Kitty into a deep depression. I cannot help but think that if there is any criticism to be drawn that it is of the largest variety possible, a criticism of a society which is organized to the extent that Anna Karenina’s gifts are not acknowledged – hers or anybody else’s – because we do not know where to look or what to look for (or why we’re looking). Never forget the epigram which prefaces the story: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” In Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature he saliently points out that this phrase is intended to be read with the proper italicization: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” If there is any lesson to be drawn from Tolstoy’s story, it is that we should refrain from judging one another because we cannot fathom the logic which has us here.

I wrote the above text before I stepped foot into Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, fully armed with Karenina prejudice (which any blood brother of Tolsty will understand); there was a time when Anna Karenina was my favorite book, after all. Having actually viewed the film, my reactions: first a laugh-off, then endearing itself to me days later, and then fading into the mists where it will reside despite every-other-annum visitations. The fans of Wright’s Anna will be the fans of spectacular Broadway productions; it’s really the only conceivable way to appreciate this film fully, you must love the theater. Playwright screenwriter Tom Stoppard claims that the expression “all the world’s a stage” inspired this production’s conceit: it is entirely shot in ‘a decrepit old Russian theater’ (save two or three exteriors which frankly could’ve been faked) and despite the absence of musical numbers is wholly experienced as filmed ultra-budget theater. Sets rise and fall as characters act in the foreground, extras move in choreographed unison, costumes and makeup are intricate and flamboyant, there is outright disregard for the 4th wall… sometimes you can see two-dimensional pieces of the set stood up on the stage as players act around them – and you’d better adjust because there’s no liking this film without accepting its hefty artifice. About 3/4 of the way in the film’s elaborate contrivances seem to go away entirely and it becomes more of a chamber drama with only three characters – this for better or worse, but it struck me as simply inconsistent. The ending comes abruptly and is certainly an anticlimax, like Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.

I did say that Anna endeared itself to me, though. Some casting decisions match personality types to Tolstoy’s story more accurately than I’ve witnessed in previous film adaptations, like Kitty and Oblonsky.. and Vronsky, who I had never imagined as quite such a fey-looking pretty boy, seems to make more sense in this guise – although you’ll note his fellow officers are equally as handsome, well-tailored and made-up, leaving me to wonder exactly what war they’re all fighting. Stoppard’s screenplay shews lots of insight into the novel’s density of emotional minutiae – which, I now realize, should be the core of any Anna adaptation. Anna, Alexei and Levin, in particular, have moral convictions that powerfully vacillate through the story, and it’s nice to see that played out with some amount of accuracy. But – Stoppard should know better than the gild 25-50% of the film’s dialogue with platitudinous innuendo. As usual, Levin’s story has been diminished to the point of futility and is so slight it functions quite limply as a juxtaposition to Anna’s quest for happiness. There is one scene where Levin is out in the fields of his property, scythe-hewing with the serfs who work for him, and if you haven’t read the book I imagine this could seem quite strange and an indicator that there is much going on below the surface which is not being given time.

For all my criticism of the Knightley casting, one cannot deny how far she’s come. She deserves it. Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), seen here as a living embodiment of Forbidden Fruit, is played with dripping smarm which occasionally goes overboard. We’re happy to see Kelly MacDonald (in any capacity) and she sells Dolly. Oblonsky is correctly portrayed as a doofus most suited to comic relief, and Matthew McFayden is more successful here than as Darcy in Wright’s P&P. Jude Law, who plays Alexei Karenin, gives me pause. What is it about him..? It’s possible that Law is just too shrewd for a role which requires a certain level of blindness. There’s no particular reason to dislike Law, but I feel like I’ve seen him play 1000 roles where he has never gravitated out of a ranged emotional pitch; in a way, I feel like I am always seeing the same Law. He always pleases, sure, but I wonder why he does it all? I was quite unable to stop looking at him here, though, and his facial hair which calls to mind.. Kubrick, maybe? Did Law channel the sternness, the jaw and teeth-work in Alexei, from recent co-star Jared Harris? I could never quite place the similarity.

They want Oscars for costumes and production design, they’re foaming and sweating and bleeding for them – in addition to what you’ll see, the film’s PR people aren’t being quiet about this. And I would submit that all those pretty things are your best reason to see Anna Karenina – in the cinema, where spectaculars are meant to be viewed. It is very clear that a preponderance of research was done for period authenticity and that these technicians ruled the roost. Could it ever possibly have looked like this? Could it have been this decadent? Was Russia once really so… Roman? I can criticize this decadence, but it has made me consider the time period in a way I had not before. Whether or not this is a waste of time, well, that we’ll never know. But we do know how Tolstoy himself felt about the Russian decadence of the late 1800’s, and what he’d have to say about Wright’s production.

written by David Ashley