Anna Karenina (2012) / Drama-Romance

MPAA rated: R for some sexuality and violence (I'd rate it PG-13)
Length: 130 min.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Luke Newberry
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard (based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy)
Review published December 1, 2012

Anna Karenina 2012 Keira KnightleySet during the time of imperial Russia, Keira Knightley (PotC 2 & 3),  stars as the titular Anna, married to a powerful and highly respected politician named Alexei Karenin (Law, Repo Men). Anna leaves for Moscow to aid her sister-in-law (Macdonald, Deathly Hallows Pt. 2) with her marriage, and along the way, she encounters a Countess (Williams, X3), whose son, a cavalry officer named Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass), ends up meeting them and becoming infatuated with Anna. While Anna's marriage and position, leave her initially insisting the persistent young man to go away, she can't help but begin to feel passion in return, as the two engage into an affair that puts her in peril of a fall from society through a shameful divorce.

Leo Tolstoy's great 19th-Century novel gets the lavish treatment one more time with the 2012 version of Anna Karenina, directed with a unique sense of style by Joe Wright (Hanna, The Soloist), working off of a script adaptation by famed playwright Tom Stoppard (Enigma, Shakespeare in Love). Tolstoy's untamed opus is quite lengthy and dense, full of all manner of psychological, philosophical, moral and social nuance, which makes for a particularly difficult adaptation to squeeze it all in to 130 minutes of screen time.

Wright and Stoppard do their best to keep the action moving in Luhrmann-esque style, using the artifice of filming a sort of magical, semi-musical stage play, moving people and sets about as needed, giving us the essence of the masterwork without losing the gist of the basic storyline. Wright's camera glides about the stage fluidly, settling in to scenes that deliver theatrical qualities, only to have them end with the artifice of the stage play again as it segues to the next important scene. How clever you think the process is will likely reside in why you believe the filmmakers chose to go this route. Is it because Stoppard, a veteran playwright, constructed the screenplay as if written for the stage as a commentary of the facade of Russian aristocracy and its phony emphasis on customs and morals? Or is it merely a cost-cutting measure to save the costs of lavish locale shoots or elaborate period sets?

The quality cast does bring the characters to life, despite the rather abbreviated nature of the build-up before they are thrust into emotional situations. However, a lack of romantic chemistry causes the tawdry storyline to lack the requisite sizzle, allowing the characters and their plights to remain aloof and uninvolving. This actually could be said of the film as a whole, as the characters remain as cold and desolate as a Siberian winter. Taylor-Johnson has the looks of a would-be Romeo, but none of the gravitas and forcefulness that such a part requires, as he appears to be little more than an affectionate boy-toy to be pursued by ladies of great means. Meanwhile, Jude Law delivers an admirably subdued performance as the unfortunate cuckold, as we wish that, at some point, his anger might get the better of him so he can put a stop to his being disrespected constantly by a wife who has passion for someone else. Anna is less than sympathetic as she tries valiantly to keep up her affair without having to give up all of the privileges being married to aristocracy provides.

Despite the skimping in terms of scenic locale work, there is a beauty to the way the film looks, particularly the costumes, gowns, and art design. As exquisite as it looks, it's not enough to make the story any more compelling, as it plays out as a melodrama rather than an epic, reducing the implications to be small and personal, rather than the weighty and introspective look at people caught in a vise of their own making, with potentially tragic and fatal results should they make hasty or ill-thought decisions.

Not that it is a bad film, necessarily.  There is enough interest in the story, quality acting, and beauty in the sights and sounds to make it a worthwhile viewing for those who know the story well.  Nevertheless, the way the film is shot tends to bring in a distancing artifice to the piece that doesn't exactly work well for emotional impact, and the lack of rich characterizations makes for far less power when the story begins to build up for a heart-wrenching climax. While Anna Karenina is an admirable work in many respects, it should probably only be seen by those already familiar with the story who are looking for a uniquely presented take. For the uninitiated, it feels more like a telling from someone who has read the Tolstoy work, then had a dream about it, and decided to make a semi-surreal film based on the dream. It has the essence, but not the vitality.
Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo