Cinematic Flashback: Anna Karenina (2012) Review
An impure love is not love, to me. To admire another man’s wife is a pleasant thing, but sensual desire indulged for its own sake is greed, a kind of gluttony, and a misuse of something sacred which is given to us so that we may choose the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness. Otherwise we might as well be cattle and my latest “cinematic flashback” for the 2012 movie Anna Karenina.
“You can’t ask why about love”
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Tom Stoppard
Starring: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: November 9th, 2012
In 1874, in the Imperial Russia, the aristocratic Anna Karenina travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to save the marriage of her brother Prince Oblonsky, who had had a love affair with his housemaid. Anna Karenina has a cold marriage with her husband, Count Alexei Karenin, and they have a son. Anna meets the cavalry officer Count Vronsky at the train station and they feel attracted by each other. Soon she learns that Vronsky will propose to Kitty, who is the younger sister of her sister-in-law Dolly. Anna satisfactorily resolves the infidelity case of her brother and Kitty invites her to stay for the ball. However, Anna Karenina and Vronsky dance in the ball, calling the attention of the conservative society. Soon they have a love affair that will lead Anna Karenina to a tragic fate.
Being a film buff and somewhat savant in literary works (or at least I pretend to be one…haha), I remember seeing the movie trailers for Anna Karenina sometime around the first half of 2012, highlight the feature’s main plot and the lavishing cinematic vision that the movie had to offer. Naturally, working at a bookstore, I’ve heard about the famous novel “Anna Karenina” by Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who’s best known for his novel titled “War & Peace”. Unfortunately, while I was definitely curious to see the movie (the cast and the story intrigued me), I never got around to reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. To this day, I still haven’t read it, but I really do want (maybe one day I’ll take the time out to do so). Anyways, I did miss seeing Anna Karenina during its theatrical run in theaters. To be honest, I think it was a limited screening of it, so I think it didn’t make it to where I was living. Of course, I do understand that there is a plethora of adaptations of Anna Karenina, but this movie definitely intrigued me the most. So, I had to wait for it when it came to on Blu-ray that following year. Personally, I had mixed feelings about this movie….and here’s why.
Directed by Joe Wright (the director behind 2005’s Pride & Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement), Anna Karenina has all the right stuff and ingredients for a passionate love story. The complexity of Tolstoy’s work (from what I’ve read about) delves into a lot of themes and storytelling elements (i.e. love, politics, betrayal, society, etc.), which makes the narrative of Anna Karenina ripe for a cinematic adaptation. The movie certainly showcases that aspect, presenting a sweeping tale of love and betrayal amongst its various characters and the views point each of them has on the upper echelon of Russian high society (and how they handled being seeing by them). Thus, for better or worse, the film has an engaging story to tell and the cinematic treatment gives Tolstoy’s literary work a fantastic way of beauty and grace.
Visually, Anna Karenina shines within its glossy beautiful finish. Well, I mention one big glaring artistic design that doesn’t worry down below, what certainly does work is the lavishing costumes designs of all the various outfits. From opulent women gowns and dresses to very formal / militaristic suits and attire outfits for men, the costumes featured in the film are absolutely breathtaking. Thus, the costume designs by Jacqueline Durran should be highly commended in their overall presentation throughout the movie. Plus, Durran’s costumes designs for Anna Karenina was so great on the feature that she was nominated (and won) in category of Best Costumes Designs at the 85th Academy Awards presentation. Additionally, the hair and make-up team that worked on the film should also be applauded for their efforts on the film. Plus, the film’s score by Dario Marianelli was pretty good throughout the movie.
The main problem with Anna Karenina is Wright’s cinematic approach to material, which is really a “bold” vision choice to go with. What do I mean? Well, instead of a more traditional way of telling a movie’s story, Wright decided to frame a lot of the feature’s background and setting pieces on a theatre stage. While this may have worked if the story was being told / presented on an actual theatrical stage production, the translation of this idea is experimental at best and ultimately backfires against Wright’s best intentions. The usage of the theatre stage for the changing of settings feels very wonky and odd and it pervades throughout the entire feature. Again, the idea still bold and admirable, but the entire novelty of “theatre stage” setting definitely wears out its welcome quickly and takes a viewer out of the viewing experience of the feature. Additionally, the movie does feel a tad bit convoluted with some characters getting shortchanged and underdeveloped. Like I mentioned above, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is quite a complex novel and is a pretty dense literary work, making up 800 pages in some translations / publications, separated into eight parts, and featuring a cast of dozen main characters. Naturally, the film’s script by Tom Stoppard has to trim Tolstoy’s source material to make it fit within a 129-minute feature film. Thus, the narrative story is there, but a lot of side aspects gets lost and it’s something I felt, despite not reading or knowing much of Tolstoy’s work when I initial watch them movie. All in all, Wright’s decision for style over substance is the biggest criticism that the film has going against it.
The cast of Anna Karenina is a big highlight of the Wright iteration of Tolstoy’s classic novel, with selection of acting talents bringing their sense of dramatic poise and theatrical nuances that make these characters come alive on-screen in such a vibrant way. Naturally, actress Kiera Knightley headlines the feature as Anna Karenina and she certainly does provide a captivating performance in the role. Of course, it’s not her best work, but Knightley sells the plight and romance of Anna and definitely looks good in the various outfits in the movie (again, the costumes are great). Additionally, actors Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson do equally good jobs in their respective roles as Anna’s love interests (i.e. Count Alexei Karenin and Count Alexei Vronsky). The rest of the cast, including Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, and Ruth Wilson all give great performances in the respective roles as supporting characters. As a side-note, actress Alicia Vikander (before she became more prominent in feature films) appeared in Anna Karenina as Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya.
In the end, Wright’s Anna Karenina is the classic tale of style over substance. The movie is visually appealing and stunningly beautiful within its costumes and make-up aesthetics and is definitely well-acted from its talented cast, but languishes within Tolstoy’s epic love story and Wright’s experimental approach to the source material. There’s definitely a story to be told within this sweeping tale of love and betrayal, but it’s mostly hidden underneath a cinematic glossy finish….and that’s a shame.
Cinematic Flashback Score: 3.3 Out of 5
Fun Fact: James McAvoy (Levin), Saoirse Ronan (Kitty), Cate Blanchett (Countess Lydia), Benedict Cumberbatch (Oblonsky), and Andrea Riseborough (Princess Betsy), all of whom had worked with Joe Wright before, turned down roles in the film. They were replaced, respectively, by Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Emily Watson, Matthew Macfadyen, and Ruth Wilson.