Movie review: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is one of those impossible-to-film books. As a piece of 700-page intense literature, the themes are too intense, the characters too verbose, the scene changes dramatic and the characters and plot lines too long and intertwined to be made comprehensible in just 2 hours. (Read what I thought of Anna Karenina in this blog post)

Fortunately, the makers of the latest film version have not even tried to fit the book into a film. What they have done instead is slice the narrative down to every individual dramatic event and leave nothing else. They have cut out all unnecessary words, themes, segways, diversions and focussed entirely on three love stories and the life and ‘lot’ of aristocratic women in late 19th century Russia.
Furthermore, rather than create extravagant sets for the drawing rooms and streets of St Petersburg, all of the action that takes place in an old, disused theatre. It is clear that this is a not a faithful Anna Karenina but the tale of Anna Karenina. The sets slide and glide and the characters wander freely through the rigging and across the stage, moving from office to restaurant to ice rink.  Difficult to accept at first, it works so beautifully as a device to speed the story along and also to make it clear to the audience how false and misleading is the life of a socialite. Constantin Levin, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is the most real and grounded of all the main characters so he alone is allowed to venture off the stage sets and out into the Russian landscape.
 The film benefits from a cast of bit-characters played by actors such as Ruth Wilson and Shirley Henderson.
Anna Karenina the novel is about so much more than the title character, but in the film, her tragic love story with Vronsky is the key plot and almost every moment in the book is played out in full tear-jerking-glad-its-not-me detail.

 Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson making all the wrong decisions.

Keira Knightley is perfect as Anna, excelling as she does in corseted and bejewelled dramas. As much as I like her as an actress, there are times her breathy, shuddering performances irk me, which is perfect for the frustrating and irrational woman that Anna becomes. By the end of the novel, as much as I understood her plight, her drama queen character was irritating rather than sympathy-inducing and the grand finale of the film – foreshadowed as subtly as a mace to the head – can’t come quickly enough. Her lover Count Vronsky, played stylishly by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is almost laughable is his embodiment of Russian physical perfection but portrays perfectly his obsession with Anna, turning to exasperation as her paranoia grows and his patience thins.
Anna Karenina is sumptuous and bewitching. We don’t want to live in this tight, constrained pattern of life but we lust for the jewels, the extravagance, the beauty of this Empire before it came crashing down. This is an enjoyable, visually beguiling film with a story line cut down to the bare lesson that yes indeed, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own, tragic way.
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