Does the bold Anna Karenina have Oscar glory emblazoned on its beauty pageant sash? Read on to find out.
Among the most visually stunning movies in memory, Anna Karenina is a bold spectacle, keenly self-aware of its environment, and daring audiences to peer into its chaotic and highly-stylized snowball. But like an old repainted door, the rust of a chunky tragic love story rears its head far too often to either keep our attention or root for anyone inside the ball.11 For those of you unfamiliar with Tolstoy’s 846-page planet-killer, here’s the 24-hour news cycle summary: the beautiful and independent aristocrat Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley, King Arthur) and the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass) fall head over heels in love with each other, while Anna’s dull politician husband Alexi (Jude Law, Gattaca) watches his marriage fall apart. As the young lovers descend into a messy affair, Russia’s uncompromising social elite and draconian divorce laws isolate Anna from her friends and son.
Karenina wants us to know that it’s important, with its elegant gowns and Russian winters, set in the backstages of an old performance theater. Director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) creates nothing less than a sumptuous visual feast, complete with a dizzying display of shifting backdrops and transitions that demonstrates how far the technical side of cinema has evolved. Anna steps out from her boudoir into a moving carriage, a piano room transforms into an ice rink, all while stage lights glow in the background, as if the stage itself has somehow become its own character. This is Julie Taymor’s Titus on steroids but without the organic feel which she so masterfully created. Don’t get me wrong, Wright delivers a powerful message about love, politics, and the inflexible society of Czar-ist 1800’s Russia; but Writer Tom Stoppard’s script isn’t quite so elegant, never getting us more than an arm’s-length to the anti-heroine for us to feel her plight. Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) portrays Anna as a selfish, self-centered aristocrat whose own inflexibility to see the damage she’s caused dooms her to a tragic end. In many ways, her death almost comes as a relief, with an ending that all but places the tramp stamp on our once-elegant leading lady.
The subplots have little to do with Anna’s struggles, and perhaps that’s another reason why Karenina feels so uneven at points. Whether we re-visit Anna’s cheerfully unfaithful brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, Frost-Nixon) and his unhappy wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men), or Dolly’s younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander, A Royal Affair) and her uncultured husband Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, True Grit), we’re supposed to be reminded of the ways love affects others. Instead, we’re left wondering what could have been if these elements hadn’t overtaken the story.
Anna Karenina demonstrates the classic adage, “You can be right but still be wrong.” Wright has conquered the old notion that certain books are ‘unfilmable,’ but in his effort to create a masterpiece, he missed the most basic value of storytelling: keep the audience on your side. Stoppard’s chunky cautionary plot fails to hold our interest with an underutilized Law and an overemphasized Johnson, while making Knightley look self-interested and frankly a home-wrecker. Few can root for a character who displays such moral ambiguity, and perhaps that was Tolstoy’s purpose. However, it doesn’t translate well to the screen, although the stunning visuals try to gloss over this rusty door that sadly no new coat of paint can improve. Anna Karenina is rated R and has a runtime of 130 minutes.
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