Anna Karenina (2012)

By James Jay Edwards
Released: November 16, 2012
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Anna Karenina is acclaimed director Joe Wright's bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, stirringly adapted from Leo Tolstoy's great novel by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love).

Novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Film Review
Director Joe Wright (Hanna) and actress Keira Knightley (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) have teamed up again. This time, the pair has taken on an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's famous book "Anna Karenina", adapted for the screen by playwright Tom Stoppard. The man who wrote "Travesties" adapts a novel by the man who wrote "War and Peace", and that's a lot of creative firepower for one classic novel adaptation.

For those who slept through their honors English Literature class in high school, Anna Karenina is the story of a Russian Princess, aptly named Anna Karenina (Knightley), who, despite being married to the Count Alexi Karenin (Jude Law from the Sherlock Holmes films), finds herself having feelings for a soldier named Count Alexi Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass). When Anna has an affair with Vronsky and her husband inevitably finds out, she is shunned and outcast by the other members of the Russian aristocracy, so badly that Karenin will not even let her visit her children. Torn between Karenin and Vronsky, Anna has to try to pick up the pieces of her shattered life while facing the wrath of her social peers.

Anna Karenina works well as an eight part serial novel written in 19th century Russia: as a modern feature film, not so much. Much of the stirring imagery and political commentary of Tolstoy's novel is lost here. Even with Stoppard's competent screenplay, the drama and emotion of the story does not translate well to the screen, despite the best efforts of both the cast and director. Because of Stoppard's extensive experience in writing plays, the script comes off more like a theatrical production instead of a filmic device. Joe Wright seems to realize this, and takes advantage of the dramatic aspects of the script in his direction. The production design of the film echoes the theatrical feeling, with sets and costumes that are simplistic, flat and one dimensional. The choice to treat the movie more like a stage play works fine when it comes to the technical aspects of the film - it's a question of the style of the film, not the talent of the filmmaker. However, whereas a stage play can get away with long bouts of exposition with little action, a film cannot. Anna Karenina suffers from long sections that are, quite frankly, really boring and hard to follow unless the viewer is familiar with Tolstoy's work. Even with Wright's left-of-center take on the old classic, the film still feels like a lot of British actors trying to be Russian. Interestingly presented and visually impressive, the movie is a triumph of spectacle over substance but, without things happening, Anna Karenina just feels long.
The soundtrack for Anna Karenina is just as surreal as the rest of the film. Composer Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) provides a musical score that works hand in hand with the effects of sound designer Paul Carter (Kick-Ass), creating a multi-layered and complex soundscape. In one scene, the choreographed stamping of a group of office workers provides the percussion to a rich orchestral piece. Similarly, in another scene, the banging of a train worker's hammer becomes the beat for the tension building score. The first half of the film's soundtrack drives the story, becoming an integral part of the narrative, making the film not unlike an opera without the singing. It's unfortunate that this trend seems to die out as the film moves on, as the marriage of sound and music in the first half of the film compliments Wright's vision perfectly. The audio in Anna Karenina is every bit as interesting as the visuals, making the whole of the movie greater than the sum of its parts.
Joe Wright takes a really interesting approach to Anna Karenina. Taking a cue from Tom Stoppard's theatrical script, the film is shot very much like a play, even to the extent of many scenes taking place onstage in a theater. The fourth wall is broken often, but not by the characters, by the sets and production design itself. When a character needs a better look at something, he'll climb up a scaffold into the riggings to get a bird's eye view. When the script calls for him to go outside, a rollaway door will open and he'll walk out into the snow. An entire horse race takes place on a theater stage, with the spectators lumped on the floor and piled into the balconies. As strange as it may sound, the direction works, and Joe Wright's Anna Karenina cannot simply be lumped in with the other adaptations of the novel; amidst the play-within-a-film settings, the story takes on a surreal and dreamlike quality. Wright's direction in Anna Karenina is the aspect of the film that keeps the viewer watching until the end.

Period Piece, Drama, Romance
Release Date
November 16, 2012
MPAA Rating
Production Designer
Music Score