Movie Review: Anna Karenina
For anyone who has braved a reading of the Tolstoy novel, at its core, the story of ANNA KARENINA is first and foremost about families and love; families and their lives set in the sociopolitical climate of 1870's Russia where aristocracy was still king and industrialization was encroaching upon the insular nature of the Russian world. Part and parcel to that theme is the issue of love as each of the characters is looking for love, needing love, craving love and each has his or her own definition of what love is.
A wordsmith beyond compare, with ANNA KARENINA, Tolstoy told a family story focusing on the changing times and taboos and the railing against the outdated doctrines of male supremacy by one, ANNA KARENINA. She was a woman ahead of her time in terms of individuality and forward-thinking equality that gave true perspective to the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” mindset. It also painted her as morally conflicted, undoubtedly arising from her marriage at 18 to a man 12 years her senior (Alexei Karenin) and 10 years later the need to spread her wings and “find her bliss” in the arms of another. Adding a touch of magic to the written word is the lyrical nature of Tolstoy’s construct - a lyricism that is FINALLY (after 25 film versions and countless plays), thanks to director Joe Wright, beautifully translated to the screen under the guise of an operetta, the very nature of which has a musical ebb and flow that mirrors the story and whirling twirling emotional gravitas and beauty that is inherent to it, fueling the majesty and importance of the film in an historical context.
Thanks to Wright’s breathtaking and sumptuous visual creativity, Tom Stoppard’s keenly insightful and constructed screenplay and possibly the best performance of Keira Knightley’s career, ANNA KARENINA is easily the Best Picture of the Year and Knightley joins the very limited list of Best Actress Oscar contenders.
With ANNA KARENINA, we are given the gift of Keira Knightley. Celebrating the complexity of the relationship between a reader/audience and the character, Knightley herself opines, “Within the pages of the book it’s so massively open to different interpretation anyway and partly because [Tolstoy] does write from inside [Anna’s] head but often he doesn’t. Often he writes from outside, judging her and describing her. I think because of that judgment and description, it means that there are lots of different interpretations.” Taking us along on Anna’s roller coaster of emotions, Knightley shines brighter than any star in the heavens. With a look, a glance, a smile, we feel Anna’s joy and we feel her love. “Her moral culpability is constantly in question. I think she is held up to be condemned at certain points. I think she’s also held up to be loved and to be understood and to be sympathized with.” With every tear, every tight lipped look, we feel her pain. Knightley emotionally transforms Anna and doesn’t miss a beat or subtlety in so doing. The highs, the lows, the demons of guilt. She makes us feel. This is no gratuitous performance. This is a master class in emotion. She is so precise and so immersed in the story and character that when she gives Anna masks of false bravado or agreement in order to save her lifestyle, her relationship with her son or even get Alexei to take her back, we see the strain and falsehood of Anna’s lies and the almost kabuki porcelain immobility of the face, just waiting for emotion to crack it.
Knowing the efforts of those countless Anna’s that had come before her, I asked her what attracted her to the character and what was it about Wright’s vision that gave her the confidence that it was now her time to tackle ANNA KARENINA. “I read the book when I was about 19. . . Obviously, anyone would go, ‘gosh, golly that’s an amazing character.’ When Joe [Wright] phoned me up, I think we’d had a conversation about, when we were doing “Atonement”, great female roles and how few there are and we were trying to name them, ANNA KARENINA definitely came up within that conversation. He phoned me about 2 years ago when I was working on “A Dangerous Method” and he just went, ‘ANNA KARENINA?’ and I went, ‘Yep!’. And he went, ‘We’ll only do it if Tom Stoppard does the adaptation.’ and I went, ‘Okay.’ . . The script obviously wasn’t there yet so it was purely on the potential of what that story and that character and that collaboration could be.”
As Anna’s husband, Karenin, Jude Law is controlled perfection. He makes it easy to see why a young doe-eyed innocent as Anna was at 18 would want him as a husband. Law also gives the added element of maturity but stifled in time, trapping himself, the country and Anna in a gilded cage.
Kelly MacDonald brings a humanizing richness to Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly while Alicia Vikander makes younger sister Kitty the perfect spoiled little sister with a vixenous edge. Watching Vikander transform as Kitty matures and learns what love is, is captivating to watch. Similarly, watching Knightley’s Anna respond is equally impressive as the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head and emotional manipulation takes center stage. The driving force of love is what makes each character tick and the actors each capture the essence of their respective character’s definition of love, by their demeanor. Incredibly cohesive and surprising to see an entire cast on the same page.
Ruth Wilson is beyond delicious as the self-centered, trouble making, superficial Princess Betsy while Olivia Williams goes above and beyond as Countess Vronsky, relishing the subtext of the Countess’ motives. Emily Watson - hard but impassioned and passionate as Countess Lydia Ivanovna - plays a double-edged duality - staunch hypocritical devotion to the church while clearly lusting for Alexei Karenin.
This is one instance where it is the sum of the parts that are greater than the whole - the hallmark of an Oscar worthy Best Picture. Most notable is the importance of the female dynamic within the film and the specific character relationships, something which screenwriter Stoppard and the film’s actresses have deliciously brought to the forefront and to life. Clearly, Tolstoy loved women and their complexities.
The one casting disappointment is Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Vronsky. What woman in their right mind would be attracted to such a foppish dimwit. This is the one flaw in the film as Taylor-Johnson has no appeal whatsoever in the role. There is nothing remotely sexy or sensual about him and while I see fire smoldering from Knightley in her scenes with him, it’s all one sided. There is no heat, nothing at all that even hints at physical or emotional desire coming from Taylor-Johnson. He’s not even physically appealing in the least. Sadly, with the attraction and affair with another man as a core element of the story and film, we need a different actor to make the lust and love believable.
If Tom Stoppard doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for his screenplay adaptation of ANNA KARENINA, then I will be assured that the Academy voters are all illiterate idiots. This adaptation is masterful. Creatively told and inspired in its structure, Stoppard gives life to Tolstoy’s words and makes these characters people whom we now know and would recognize on a street were we to meet. Even the minutest character is fleshed out either by dialogue, costume or scene placement so as to truly embolden the imagery and impact of the film as a whole. There is no superfluous dialogue and the dialogue itself, while relatable in the 21st century, is tonally structured so that it’s cadence is not only lyrical, but in keeping with the 1870's. Interesting is that Stoppard’s script delivers an intimacy while retaining the majestic grandeur of the world in which the story is set and KEY - - the individuals never feel as if insignificant ants in the grand scheme of the changing world. The script feels as much a part of the 21st Century as it does the 19th Century.
Hand in hand with Stoppard’s design is Joe Wright’s direction and the masterful visuals created through his team of artisans, all of which paint a portrait as being some of the most spectacular and beautiful in the history of film. Beautiful. Sumptuous. Heart-stopping. As visually seductive as the story itself. Setting Wright’s version of ANNA KARENINA apart from the rest is the operetta setting with scenes opening, ending and transitioning within the confines of the decaying opera house. BRILLIANT! Adds an entirely new dimension to the film. Using scenic choreography and costume changes as staged theatrical scene transitions, the result is as visually lyrical as Tolstoy’s writing. According to Wright, “I’ve been for some time wanting to find a way of stylizing cinema, trying to get closer to the emotional story that I was telling and get rid of all the ‘bumpf’ that goes with it and allow the audience a more participatory experience. It was an attempt to do all of those things and to really express the idea that all of these people were performing roles in their lives. It’s no coincidence that the first time we see Keira, she’s getting dressed like an actress putting on a costume and she goes out into the world or into [the] family home and tries to play a role that she’s no longer suited to.”
Tom Stoppard and Joe wright have no bigger fan than Keira Knightley herself. “ When the script was first written and we first started talking about it, it was going to be a completely naturalistic telling. It didn’t turn into this stylized thing until 10 weeks before we started shooting when [Wright] phoned me up and said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you. . . We’re going to set it in a theater.’ If I’d been working with somebody I didn’t know, that would have been totally terrifying and the alarm bells would have been ringing. But I think because I do know him and we’ve worked together so many times and there is an implicit trust there, the reason I wanted to work with him at all on this was because he was never going to do something just straight. Even when you look at “Pride & Prejudice”...it was deeply naturalistic in that everybody was kind of a bit scruffy and the hemlines were a bit off and there was mud over everything. It was a very different telling. “Atonement” the same thing. It was the infamously unfilmable novel and he tackled that. So I always knew that there was going to be something else that he’d bring out of it. I didn’t quite expect it was going to be that.”
When it comes to production design, the relationship between Wright and Sarah Greenwood is so in sync, so synergistic and symbiotic, that each of their projects just gets better and better but I don’t know how they will ever top ANNA KARENINA. Celebrating and capturing not only the opulence and grandeur of the day, but the class distinctions, military/government importance, and the industrial fragility of the era within Russia’s development in the world, the production design is flawless. No stone is left unturned right down to sheaves, sickles, apples, parfum bottles, period games (the pre-scrabble or boggle), while the intricacy of furniture and gilding are beyond impressive. Even the design of train interiors is impeccable. Fabrications are ornate, textured and often have a moire finished sheen or fur luxuriousness to them. On the flip side, even simple burlap or woven linen shirts or furniture upholstery is telling, with all adding to the totality of the circumstance of the overall film.
Costume designer Jacqueline Durran needs to get a white gossamer dress (actually made of bed linens according to Knightley) worn by Anna to the opera in her acknowledged mistress days, turned into a wedding dress deal somewhere. BREATHTAKING! All of the costumes are stunningly gorgeous and again, utilizing fabrics that create subtle rich visual texture, be they for the aristocracy or the commoner folk like Dolly. And the jewels. I want them all. Keira Knightley wants them as well. And again, Oscar is calling Durran’s name.
Wright uses extensive tonal use of of color in not only set design but costuming. Metaphoric and telling. Powerful is never seeing Anna in harlot red (and that was the one and only time she was in red - in the bathrobe at the window) until after her angelic appearance in gossamer white at the opera when she was dissed and ignored by all for publicly acknowledging her affair with Vronsky, leaving her child and moving in with him. The color contrast visually exposes the moral dilemma of Anna. Use of color is lush, rich and sumptuous and as much a storytelling tool throughout as the spoken word.
The scene choreography transitioning within the opera house is meticulous with its split second timing. There’s something about it that also stimulates the mind almost as if a small whirlwind of snow metaphorically speaking to the changing mores of the times. Intriguing aspect of the film.
The work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey is flawless with impeccable and telling framing. As much a part of the tonal storytelling if not moreso, lighting and use of shadows and negative space only escalates the film’s impact while defining emotion and the sociopolitical aspect of a particular scene. Breathtaking. Contrasting scenes of stark warmth and simplicity such as shots of Karenin and his children in a beautiful sun light field of daisies is heart-stopping. Such life and light. It’s as if it took Anna’s death to bring Alexei into the light. [Come on, guys. I’m not spoiling it for you. We all know about ANNA KARENINA and her demise.] That scene definitely bodes as one of the money shots of the film.
Completing the portrait is Dario Marianelli’s score. This film could not exist in its present state of beauty without it. The lilting musicality of the score soars while at the same time having a haunting beauty.
Enthralling, moving, exhilarating. Majestic and sweeping. The best and most brilliant interpretation of Tolstoy I have ever seen. NOW THIS IS A MASTERPIECE!! I have been swept into the majesty of Imperial Russia and ANNA KARENINA...and I love it.
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Tom Stoppard based on the novel “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly MacDonald, Ruth Wilson, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfayden, Domhnall Gleeson