The film tells the story of Anna, member of the high society, married to Karenin, respected politician with whom she shares a son and passionless albeit respectful life. When Anna visits her brother, who recently disgraced himself by cheating on his wife, she locks eyes with the young, handsome count Vronsky. Soon they bump into each other again and they cannot resist their passion. A love is born that threatens Anna's reputation and old way of living.
For me the adaptation is successful if it's stand alone work of art which doesn't require the viewer to read the source novel and still manages to capture its spirit. Anna Karenina fails on both territories - while I'm sure Wright read the novel, the way he handled this movie suggests otherwise. Both him, his leading lady and the composer Dario Marianelli's efforts look - and sound - like they completely missed the meaning of the tragic love story - the way certain scenes are handled make it all look like it was an insignificant, comic farce and Marianellli's much too light music certainly doesn't help here.
The film has nothing left of the novel's spirit because of the choices made by Wright. While the actual age of the actors may be right it doesn't work well - I always believed that to capture Anna and Vronsky's bond successfully, much older actors are desirable. While Anna was around 28-30 years old she would already be considered a spinster in the Russian society in 19th century had she been single. Vronsky was younger than her, yes, but still the affection between them because of the script and Knightley's misguided perception of her character plays like puppy love, the infatuation between teenagers and that is just not acceptable. To successfully translate their emotions and situation to the new audience, Wright should have used more experienced and quite frankly better actors, though Johnson is doing surprisingly well even if he is a miscast.
The love between the two was supposed to be a bond between a woman who after years of loveless marriage discovers passion that burns, attracts and ultimately consumes her. I don't know who to blame here - the writers, the director or Knightley - but the fact is, that instead of mature woman, wife and mother the way Anna is portrayed here I felt as if I was watching silly teenager who wants to leave her boring life and just party with her boy toy. That's not what the novel was about. That's fucking Gossip Girl.
And had they even went in this ludicrous direction - that's fine, but at least to it with consistency. Instead Anna's son is more of a useless plot device than source of any emotion. In the novel the fact that Anna could not see her beloved son because she disgraced herself was a source of great pain. Here it's just one or two additional scenes that bring absolutely nothing to the movie because the connection between the mother and their son is so feeble it may as well cease to exist.
Anna Karenina is such a mess even its assets add to movie being flawed - Jude Law gives us very good performance as Karenin, in fact the most sympathetic Karenin from the four adaptations I've seen. But ironically, it only makes Anna more despicable. She comes off as spoiled, selfish brat in this and in the end you may actually find yourself rooting for Karenin. There is one particularly ridiculous scene where Anna tells Karenin who intends to sleep with her that she can't because she loves Vronsky. I actually give the man credit for not throwing her cheating ass out of the house right there and then. Congratulations, Joe Wright except perhaps you should have entitled that "Karenin" instead since the audience roots for him?
A lot of people had the problem with including Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky but to my surprise he actually delivered the best performance in the ensemble. He understood his character and even though the script is so pathetic he managed to make every single one of Vronsky's actions look believable and even understandable. Though Johnson starred in the worst movie I've seen - Kick Ass - time and time again I'm impressed with his talent. When he is not in despicable movies, that is.
The parallel story to that of Anna's is the one of Levin - apparently that's where Wright loses those who never read the novel. It's perfectly understandable as it is clumsily handled here and the metaphor - that the honest living and focusing on those things which matter and not on luxury will bring you happiness - still works, but none of the two stories that are supposed to lead you to that conclusion do. The biggest problem here is that Levin is played by Domhnal Gleeson who has no charisma at all. And his love interest Kitty is played by Alicia Vikander who finds her way to play her character only half way through their story.
Some parts of the story were handled well and that is mostly the scenes where Anna is disgraced - the scenes where she is shunned by the society are very well made (I give so much credit to Michelle Dockery here, who is able to do so much with so little, like when her character takes Anna's hand). I wish more of the film was dedicated to that and Anna's descent into madness, but Wright really got lost in the film's 3rd act and the innovative way of filming the story as much as it helped in portrayal of Anna's madness, didn't work because her character was so poorly established.
Before I write about what was the fatal flaw in this film, I'm gonna focus on few more positives - the film is made in a very unique way and it's never a bad thing, even if the film itself is so mediocre. It takes place on gigantic stage or should I say several connected stages - actors move from one to another and though it may sound weird, it actually looks like pretty ordinary movie inside the rooms, as they differ in set design and it all feels normal other than for transitions. This is where it gets impressive because many times there aren't any traditional cuts - the actor just moves to different stage and suddenly he is in a whole new place.
There are also many impressive individual scenes - the one that will probably be the most memorable for everyone who sees the film is the waltz Anna and Vronsky dance. As they dance, everyone around them is standing still, but as they dance and swirl and move next to others, the people around start moving too - as if the feelings between Anna and Vronsky were so powerful they bring everything around them to life.
I suppose those few who gave the film high praise were dazzled by the film's visual beauty which attempted to hide how hollow the film is. The film does look very beautiful - the costumes, the set design, it's all gorgeous. But I was never the sort of the person who could forget about how hollow the movie is in terms of emotions if it looked pretty. While I won't argue with the Academy for nominating the film in 4 technical categories (apart from the score which was a serious misfire), it still doesn't change the fact that watching Anna Karenina was like staring at the beautiful dollhouse for 2 hours.
For me the most beautiful aspect of the movie was the fact that the royalty of modern English roses were there: we have Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey who delivers wonderful work in few scenes she is in, Luther's Ruth Wilson as quirky princess, beautiful Holliday Graigner from The Borgias and even supermodel Cara Delavigne. Other wonderful actresses such as Olivia Williams, Kelly MacDonald and Emily Watson appear in short, but memorable performances. In some ways what these women accomplished here was quite remarkable as most of them were far more memorable than Keira Knightley.
Now let's mention the worst part of the film which is its ridiculous ending- in the last 10 minutes Wright made so many mistakes I truly think Tolstoy is rolling in his grave. After the conclusion to Anna's fate - which had potential to be one of the film's most memorable moments and was completely butchered and deprived of its horror and brutality - we only see a GLIMPSE of Vronsky. The crucial scene in the train between Vronsky and Levin is nowhere to be found. Wright has completely butchered the story.
Even more puzzling is the film's final shot which is another reason why I though the title Karenin would be more appropriate - we see him being peaceful and happy taking care of his son and Anna and Vronsky's kid. What was that? Why on Earth would Wright choose this moment to finish the movie with? In the effect Anna Karenina is really not a movie for anyone - it's not a good movie and it's not a good adaptation. And pretty visuals...that's just not enough to hold any one's interest.
Anna Karenina (2012, 129 min)
Plot: Set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.
Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Tom Stoppard (screenplay), Leo Tolstoy (novel)
Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-JohnsonRELATED POSTS: