Thursday, November 29, 2012

Anna Karenina Movie Review

The classics of Russian literature don’t tend to have definitive film versions, though it may be that Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina changes that – for a while anyway. There was a Hollywood version in 1948 starring Vivien Leigh, but it has not stood as an important work of cinematic adaptation. Generally speaking, the literary adaptations from Hollywood in the Golden Age offered little in making the works cinematic. They were so often (and still are, for that matter) like filmed stage plays with sumptuous sets and intricately patterned costumes and British actors donning an air of pomposity. These films feel stifled by a desire to be ‘true’ to the material, making for very boring viewing experiences. To read Anna Karenina should not be the same experience as it is to view it.

To this end, Stoppard’s trim screenplay and Joe Wright’s daring and inventive direction drive this particular version more than anything else. I could prattle on about the story of a young woman in a passionless marriage to Aleksander Karenin, a stiff high-level bureaucrat. Or I could tell you about social mores in late 19th century Russia that demand the ostracizing of a woman who commits infidelity, but look the other way when her brother does the same to his wife. I could focus on the themes of a changing society, represented by the second protagonist, Levin, who is caught in between the two worlds. He’s not quite old world Russia, but doesn’t entirely embrace Western European ideals. He is the morally upstanding counterpoint to Anna, however.

For anyone who has read the novel or is at least familiar with its characters and themes, a summation of plot points is useless. For those, like me, who have no knowledge of the story before entering the film, the journey that Stoppard and Wright take you on does not demand any foreknowledge. Stoppard handles the dense material of Tolstoy’s novel and pares it down to its essential elements without, so far as I can tell, losing a lot of the meat. I do get the sense, based on what I’ve read about the novel, that Levin’s role has been cut significantly. I think that makes some significant difference as he is designed as the contrast to Anna’s behavior. But then, to have included much more would have necessitated a much longer running time which would have, in turn, reduced the film to a tedious exercise in presenting classic literature on the screen.

Keira Knightley has been Joe Wright’s muse through three films now, tackling period piece heroines of works by Jane Austen and Ian McKewan. She is truly growing beyond the adorable young actress she started as in Bend it Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean. Anna Karenina is a strong heroine, firm in her convictions that she wants passionate romance and full access to her children (both legitimate and illegitimate) at the same time. Knightley pulls this off remarkably, also deftly showing Anna’s vulnerability and paranoia as her life unravels in the end. The other actors – Jude Law as her husband; Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her lover, Count Vronsky; Matthew Macfadyen as her philandering brother; Domhnall Gleeson as Levin; plus supporting appearances by Kelly MacDonald, Olivia Williams, and Emily Watson – fill out the rest of space admirably. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem quite ready to fit comfortably in the period drama mold. Jude Law wears his role well, but he’s far too young for Karenin, in spite of a makeover that gives him added wrinkles and a significantly receding hairline.

What Wright brings to the material is the film’s most remarkable accomplishment. The presentation is staged, to a point, as if it were a theatrical production. It opens on a stage viewed from the orchestra seating area. The footlights are visible, the curtain opens and the initial action begins. As characters move from one scene to another, they pass through the wings of the stage, sometimes into the catwalk, before emerging into an entirely new set design. The effect calls attention to the staginess of most period literary adaptations. It seems to announce at once that the movie is pure artifice but also a contemporary telling of a classic story. I’m not sure it’s 100 percent effective all the time, or even that it all makes perfect sense, but it is bold and original, and therefore reason enough to recommend it.

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