Anna Karenina (2012) Review

(1.5 STARS)

Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s monumental novel Anna Karenina is a borderline unendurable experience—an exercise in period porn so devoid of charm, pleasantness, and an artistic reason to exist that each second feels like 1,000.

Yes, Wright has updated Tolstoy’s text considerably—a necessary evil of adapting something that’s been seen on the big screen as often as Anna Karenina. Wright’s answer? Make this towering story small. His Anna Karenina takes place largely within the confines of an old imperial theater, and while that approach might sound novel and intriguing, it can’t hold the weight of Tolstoy.

For those of you unfamiliar with the text, Anna Karenina tells the story of a Russian socialite (the titular character, played here by an incredibly grating Keira Knightley) torn between her duty and her heart. She’s married to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law), a brilliant and greatly admired Russian statesman, and the two have a young son, but their relationship is as frigid as the infamous Russian winter. He’s not a cold man, per se, but Anna feels nothing but tepid respect for her husband.

The other man in her life is a young and highly sought after bachelor, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When the film opens, Anna is visiting her brother, Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen), trying to mend his family after he strayed from his wife (Kelly Macdonald). Meanwhile, Stiva’s sister-in-law, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), is the most desired young lady in Moscow. Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) proposes to her at Stiva’s urging, but she declines. She has eyes for Vronsky, and at a ball one evening, she’s sure he’s to pop the question. But it’s the married Anna he’s taken with, and after a sweeping her off her feet with a dance, the two begin an affair forbidden by the laws of man and God.

Anna Karenina‘s problems don’t make themselves apparent immediately. The film’s first twenty minutes are relatively strong. Stiva is the film’s sole source of levity, and he dominates the first handful of scenes. It’s during this time we also learn the ins and outs of what Wright is attempting to do stylistically. The transitions from scene to scene are rather enchanting. Whether its the actors moving backstage or into the rafters or extras physically transporting scenery, Wright’s style gives the film a quick-footed rhythm you wouldn’t expect out of an old Russian epic like this.

It isn’t long, however, for Wright to lose interest. Once the film transitions outside the confines of the theater for the first time, there’s no going back—which isn’t to say Wright doesn’t try to take us back, but his attempts to regain what made the opening sequences special fall completely flat. After twenty minutes, Anna Karenina has no identity, no sense of scale, no real appeal.

It’s an odd case because Wright, coming off the stylish thriller Hanna, has reunited much of the cast and crew from his previous period successes. Knightley, of course, is a Wright regular, and Macfadyen was the Mr. Darcy to Knightley’s Elizabeth in the director’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Seamus McGarvey lensed Atonement (remember that Dunkirk tracking shot?) and Wright’s The Soloist, while composer Dario Marianelli has scored every Wright film other than Hanna. He even won an Oscar for his typewriter-clack-filled Atonement score.

None of them, except perhaps Macfadyen in a relatively small role, acquits himself or herself well here. McGarvey’s cinematography is fine enough, but the film has a serious problem with scale. The tightness of the stage is one thing, but to jump over and over again between vast outdoor expanses and a one-room set is incredibly jarring, and McGarvey’s camerawork, while pretty, can’t quite grasp Wright’s concept (those opening twenty minutes, again, being the exception).

Marianelli’s score, meanwhile, is so wet it needs a good wringing out. It completely overwhelms the film’s actors on way too many occasions to be given a pass.

Of this disappointing trio, though, it’s Knightley who really holds the film back. Her Anna is insufferable, and the actress’ schtick is awfully played out. We get it, Keira. Your character’s passion for Vronsky is intense to the point of suffocating you, but you sound like Bella Swan. Take a deep breath, woman.

And there’s nothing to this supposedly timeless romance. They dance, and suddenly, Anna is ready to throw her life away. It doesn’t help that Aaron Taylor-Johnson is in over his head. He was a fine Kick-Ass. But really? He’s the most eligible bachelor in Russia? Shouldn’t that man have an ounce or two of charisma? Shouldn’t he not have Russia’s worst mustache?

It’s a shame this film fails so wholly because the concept really is a strong one in theory. But Wright fumbles it badly, and a guy who seemed to have all the promise in the world a few years ago continues his cold spell. You might have thought a return to his bread and butter would help break him out of his slump, but it’s done the opposite. This is easily Wright’s worst film, as well as one of 2012’s biggest disappointments.

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