Sunday, April 21, 2013

Movie Review Sunday: Anna Karenina

When most people think of Leo Tolstoy's sweeping classic Anna Karenina, a story about love and early twinges of revolution in Imperial Russia, they tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. You wholeheartedly embrace the adventure of reading such a venerated classic.
  2. You grit your teeth and swear that you will get through the stupid thing, even if it kills you.
  3. Or, you say to hell with it and just watch the movie.
I tend to fall somewhere between #s 2 and 3. I have tried a few times to get through Anna Karenina the novelbut I'll be honest and say that I've only made it as far as the second or third chapter. And, in the end, I've ended up not watching one, but two versions of the story. The most recent version available casts Keira Knightley as the lovestruck titular character with Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the boyish and strangely highlighted-haired Count Vronsky.

Now, I'd heard a thing or two about director Joe Wright's film before I decided to sit down and take it in. Mainly the reviews were mixed at best, some enjoying Wright's daring take on the story, while others scratched their heads over what he was trying to do. When I hear such dissension over a much-touted film I'm always curious to see why.

Keira Knightley as the
lovely Anna Karenina.
Anna Karenina opens with an elaborate stage (as seen in the movie poster above), informing the audience that it is Imperial Russian, 1874. And this is how the story plays out, on a stage with lush costumes evoking the mindset and emotions of each character, from Anna's dark, sumptuous gowns to Kitty's vibrant pastel hues. The audience is hurtled through set and costume changes, all the while trying to keep up with the dialogue spoken onscreen so as not to miss a single moment in this bizarre, somewhat off-kilter idea of actually staging a film.

In the beginning, we see Anna come to her brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky's aid as she tries to diffuse a tense atmosphere between Dolly, Stiva's wife and Stiva himself, because of his infidelity with the governess. The foreshadowing of what will become Anna's own infidelity is present in the scene where she's speaking with Dolly and asking her if she has enough love in her heart to continue on with Stiva. All Dolly can do is cry and say that none of it is her fault, so why is she supposed to be the one to clean up her husband's mess. Of course, Anna herself creates the same kind of mess in her dull, loveless marriage.

Anna and Vronsky
The soon-to-be lovers of Anna and Count Vronsky first meet on the train when Anna arrives in Moscow from Saint Petersburg to meet with her brother and wife. A very fitting scene since their romance begins and ends with a train. There is a whiff of something in the air when the two first look into one another's eyes, but it isn't until the formal ball that the longing comes out. And all in front of Kitty, Dolly's younger sister who only has eyes for Count Vronsky. But this is where the love triangle gets tricky. There is another young man in the mix, Konstantin, who longs to marry the sweet, virtuous Kitty but, alas, he is only a plain-looking rural landowner, hacking out his living on the plains of Russia. The only time the film is taken offstage is when the cameras wander outdoors, out into the fresh beauty of nature and away from the stuffy confines of Russian royal society. And this is where we see Konstantin come alive, but also his heartache as he tries desperately to put Kitty and his failed proposition of marriage from his mind.

And so the story unfolds in three tales of love:  one of healing with Stiva and Dolly, one being torn apart with Anna, Vronsky and Anna's husband played with such heartbreak by Jude Law, and one being born out of complete love and innocence with Kitty and Konstantin.

Kitty and Konstantin proposing marriage through blocks.
This staged journey of what eventually becomes tragic love has a strange quality to it. I actually had to watch the film twice because the dialogue tends to get swallowed up by the lovely music overtaking much of the film. And even then, I had to listen closely to understand what was falling apart and what was mending. Having not finished the book, I'm going to go with my gut instinct and assume the tragic ending is a result of Vronsky's hand being forced into marriage because, well, that's what a young gentleman with royal blood did during a time like this. He most certainly could not go off and marry his mistress.

Here's the thing, although I struggled with and found that the staging of this film was crazily distracting, I thought the actors brought a healthy dose of humanity to one of the most famous literary infidelities of all time. Keira Knightley makes a very convincing Anna, although I've always imagined Anna's character as older. Taylor-Johnson, even with his distracting highlighted hair, pulls his emotions from deep within and throws them before the audience, hoping we will see how much he loves his darling Anna, but how much is too much sacrifice for happiness? Konstantin and Kitty's story is the most uplifting, bringing young love and tough decisions to the table, only to see that just because one is of royal blood doesn't mean one won't roll up one's sleeves and do the dirty work. And heck, your husband just might fall even more madly in love with you in the end!

I'm a little on the fence with this version of Anna Karenina, mainly because it's hard to follow with all the distracting scenery changes. But the story is still there, in all its sad, gorgeous, youthful glory. If you're looking for a more literary interpretation of Tolstoy's story then might I suggest this version of Anna Karenina.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen this film and have an opinion to add?


  1. I read the book in high school and quite liked it, but I've skipped this movie since it got such terrible reviews. (Which was disappointing; I'd been looking forward to it.) I think I saw the 1948 movie at some point, but I may be thinking of Doctor Zhivago. :) I tried clicking on your "this version" link and it didn't work.

  2. Thanks, Steph! I fixed the link.

    It's not that this version was completely horrible, just that it was taking creativity a little too far on a classic work. I think this is probably why many people don't like it. Actually, the way it was filmed reminds me a lot of how Baz Luhrmann directs his films with Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet that at first I thought he was the director. I'm actually looking forward to the new version of The Great Gatsby coming out because Luhrmann tends to take things beyond what's expected onscreen. Anyway, if you're interested in another take on the story, then give this version of Anna Karenina a try. And, yeah, I loved Doctor Zhivago!

    1. I confess I haven't seen or read Doctor Zhivago (*blushing*) I'm interested in Gatsby but worried at the same time because I hated both Moulin Rouge and Romeo & Juliet. Sorry Sister Mary and nephew! (He loves both)

  3. Sister Mary, I saw the version of Anna Karenina in your link. Honestly, after watching that film I didn't have much interest in the latest version (I'm kind of tired of Keira Knightley being in every historical film anyway!) Aside from that, I don't find the characters to be too sympathetic (perhaps my favorite is Oblonsky--might have been the actor.) I like Anna in the beginning but I dislike her when she becomes so desperate and loses all her confidence (the cheating, actually, doesn't bother me as much as her obsession with Vronsky.) Like you, I couldn't read past the first of second chapter, though the opening is catchy. It goes to show you two things:

    1. A good opening line may induce you to continue reading but it won't make you read the entire novel!

    2. There may be some truth to our lack of patience with 19th over-descriptive, omniscient novels with a large cast of characters.

  4. I will say that a large cast of characters always trips me up. I try to stay away from novels that span many years and give so many names I can't keep anyone straight. I suppose that's why I've never enjoyed much of Jane Austen's work, which would also include the annoying omniscience of all her novels. Knowing every minute detail of a scene gets boring very quickly.

    I don't blame you on the Keira Knightley thing! She does tend to be in every historical film. I hadn't thought of that...

    I think with Anna Karenina and her obsession with Vronsky boils down to two things: First, Anna believes she has finally fallen in love with someone. She's never really been in love with her husband, so I can see why she would try to cling desperately to Vronsky's love. Secondly, she's a ruined woman once her affair gets out to the public. Her need for Vronsky to hold tight to what they share is the only thing she has to cling to. And when that disappears, she doesn't know what to do. Hence the train scene in the end!

  5. This isnt kind of the movies that I was looking for. But I do really enjoy your reviw on this. Thanks!!


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