review: anna karenina

By Chris Robinson on 12/07/2012

How much do you enjoy watching Keira Knightley pout? Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) is evidently very fond of it, as he fills what seems like every scene of this two hour-plus would-be epic with her weepy mug. Close-ups of a lone tear streaking down her alabaster cheek? Check. Luxuriantly drawn out kisses shot from a point-blank range that captures every suck of lip and bead of saliva? Check. Extended sex scenes full of incoherent gasps about the ecstasies of love? Check. Meaningful character development, interesting dialogue, or compelling action? Not so much.

anna-karenina-movie-poster1Synopsis – Set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.  Trailer

Details: starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen

Rating/Runtime: R/129 min.

Dingo Dictum: C



Anna Karenina is, of course, based on Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant novel of the same name, published in 1868. The basic plot, for those who haven’t read the 350,000-word tome themselves, goes something like this: Anna (played by Knightley), aristocratic socialite and wife of a well-respected government official, falls for dashing young military man Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). A torrid affair ensues, predictably leading to strained marital and social relations for Anna. Initially she relents, promising to renounce Vronsky, and begs her husband for forgiveness. But his charitable acquiescence only invites further misbehavior, and eventually the adulteress is cast out – out of society, out of her home, and out of the lives of her two young children. Lonely and ashamed, banished life finally gets to Anna when she suspects her beloved Vronsky of infidelity, and in utter desperation (spoiler alert!*) throws herself under a train.

The biggest problem with the film is that most of these characters are largely unsympathetic; Anna is spoiled, moody, and petulant, Vronsky too debonair to have a personality, and even Jude Law’s Karenin, Anna’s cuckolded husband, is so cold and distant that it’s difficult to really sympathize or identify with him. Interestingly, the most engaging element of the movie is a side-story: the parallel courtship of Anna’s friend, Kitty (played by an enchanting Alicia Vikander), by country landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Perhaps the adaptation’s most sympathetic characters, their touching declaration of love (through letter blocks, no less) is the best scene of the film.

Another problematic aspect regards Tolstoy’s characterization of aristocratic life in late 19th century tsarist Russia: he describes it as having elements of theater, as if being played out for the audience of high society. In keeping with this perspective, Wright has decided to film the movie as if it were a play, with much of the action taking place on and around one central stage, located in a large hall. One scene blends into the next as characters dance their way past set props and each other. This must have seemed a brilliant idea on paper (and admittedly has been used to great effect before: see Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge), but then so must have two hours of crying Keira. Suffice it to say that literary analogies don’t always translate to the silver screen. If you like linear plot lines, don’t be surprised to find yourself slightly bewildered for the film’s first thirty minutes or so.

Admittedly, the film does do some things quite well. The costumes are sumptuous, and the luminous palette in which the film is shot lends it a fitting mixture of affluence and antiquity. The aforementioned Vikander and Gleeson are terrific, and Matthew Macfadyen is irrepressibly effusive as Anna’s philandering brother Stiva (wish we got to see more of each).

But overall the film takes itself much too seriously, and offers much too little in return for the investment of time it demands. If you’re really craving some Anna in your life, do yourself a favor, and read the book instead.  Δ

* Inasmuch as one can spoil a story that has been read around the world for almost 150 years


2 responses to “review: anna karenina

  1. Nice review, Chris. Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books. It is admittedly a very difficult novel to adapt, but I think it was successful as far as being a “good adaptation.” I felt like the director was able to capture some of the deeper elements of the novel while not being too literal in the translation from text to film – the stage thing, for example. It felt a little hokey to me first as well, but I decided that I liked the way it added another layer between the audience and the story, drawing attention to its artifice. I also liked the fact that Karenin was as unlikeable in the film as he is in the book, especially because jeez, he just SEEMS like he should be the good guy! Like in the novel, Karenin’s careful, logical, magnanimous nature was contrasted with Levin’s clumsy spontaneity and intuition, which is clearly what Tolstoy thinks is the best way to be. I thought having Jude Law, who usually plays the hot, unattainable guy in chick flicks (at least those are the movies I’ve seen him in …) accentuates that “I-feel-like-I-should-like-him-but-I-don’t-like-him” feeling and did a great job in the role.
    It was clear to me that someone involved in this adaptation cared very much about the novel and wanted to capture its particular beauty in this film. I loved it!

    • Very interesting perspective; I admittedly have never read the novel in its entirety (excerpts only) but it did seem that preserving not only the soul, but many of the details of the original work was very important to the filmmakers … I too find the contrasting personalities of Karenin/Levin to be one of the most interesting aspects of the story, wish the movie would have spent more time on them

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