Review: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (2012)
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfayden, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander. Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Tom Stoppard.

In a year that gave us Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi, Anna Karenina could be the best-looking movie of 2012. The colors, costumes, makeup, and staging are kind of mind-blowing, and the editing is kind of a mystery: there are single-take shots that seem to stretch much further than possible for the one soundstage on which they were filmed. In fact, it seems to make every attempt to go overboard with all the things that make us love or hate a costume drama. By setting the film on and around an actual stage, as if the film we’re seeing were being performed for us by players (and audience members) in a stage adaptation, the filmmakers give us bigger, brighter, more ostentatious dresses, makeup, facial hair, hats, jewelry, and dialogue.

Conversations that would be overwrought and self-aware in most films somehow work when presented this way, as if every ounce of the cast’s and crew’s energies is aimed at communicating with the people in the cheapest seats furthest back in the auditorium.

I have read the Leo Tolstoy novel on which this is based, a venerated classic that I’m just not extremely fond of. I like it but I don’t love it; I appreciate it but don’t exalt it. Which is pretty much how I feel about this movie. Yes, it looks terrific, but its beauty isn’t much more than skin-deep.

Keira Knightley, who is absolutely stunning here, plays Anna, a married noblewoman who falls in love with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young officer in the military. The torrid affair they fall into is known by others in Russian high society, but such intrigues are supposed to be gossiped about and carried on in pretend secret, and Anna’s feelings for Vronsky are too strong to be disguised or denied. If her husband (Jude Law) were to grant her a divorce, this could all work out tidily; however, she has a son she adores, and her husband will not give Anna the divorce and custody of his son.

“It would have been all right if she had only broken the law,” says one nameless lady who shuns Anna publicly, “but she broke the rules!”

Enriching the dramatic picture that Anna is painting are a brother and sister-in-law, Dolly and Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden and Kelly Macdonald), who keep their marriage together, at Anna’s urging, despite her brother’s unrelenting affairs with ballet dancers and governesses. Dolly’s young sister Kitty and her suitor Levin (Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson) provide further contrast as lovers unencumbered by social restrictions but slowed by misplaced priorities.

In Tolstoy’s novel, much time is spent comparing these three privileged, beautiful women and these four privileged, handsome men. We fall in love first with Anna on the written page not because she is pretty, but because of the way everyone around her seems to like and respect her so quickly. She is elegant and graceful not only in her appearance, but also in the way she opens her heart for those around her. Anna unwillingly steals Vronsky’s attention from Kitty by virtue of her confidence and bearing, qualities Kitty has not yet developed. In the film version of this same scene, all we’re given to assume is that Vronsky and Anna just really like looking at each other.

Speaking of appearances, I just can’t buy Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. I don’t know exactly what I pictured (okay, that’s not true; I pictured Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert in a movie I haven’t even seen yet), but this Vronsky is a thin, pale, fragile thing with a wispy handlebar mustache, and he just doesn’t work, at least on his own. We’re never given a chance to get to know Vronsky, for either his strengths or his flaws, so Anna’s devotion to him at enormous cost is just a puzzle.

“You can’t ask why about love,” says Vronsky to Anna in a moment of passion. This is actually not true, and the film’s willingness to sidestep the why of this relationship is its failing. There are three interesting women here, but we are given only the shallowest glimpses of any of them, and that’s a shame. A little more development of Anna’s relationships with Kitty and Dolly might have given this movie some heart and soul. As it is, it is only skin, and lovely though that skin might be, it’s not enough.


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