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Anna Karenina (2012)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Poor Poor Pitiful Her"
4 stars

For most people, I suspect that the idea of sitting through yet another screen adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy warhorse "Anna Karenina" will hold all the appeal of. . .well, of sitting through yet another screen adaptation of "Anna Karenina." First of all, the book is chock-full of all the numerous subplots, backstories and supporting characters (all of whom tend to have their own subplots and backstories as well) that are to be expected from any example of classic Russian literature worth its salt. Then there is the trouble of condensing all of those myriad subplots, backstories and supporting characters into something that can told within the running time of a standard feature film while still retaining as much of the flavor of the original novel as possible. Finally, there is the inescapable matter that "Anna Karenina" is a story that filmmakers have gravitated to time and again over the years (thanks the combination of a familiar title, its reputation as a classic and its public domain status) and it might seem impossible that anything else could be done with it to make it once again seem fresh and viable.

Having sat through more than a few of them over the years without being that impressed with the end results, I went into the latest version of "Anna Karenina" expecting more of the same--a stately-but-dull take on all-too-familiar material presented with all the passion, excitement and originality of a high-school book report. To my astonishment, this version takes the story and finds an intriguing approach that helps to bring it to life cinematically while allowing it to remain true to the spirit of the original book. Granted, the approach chose by director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard is audacious and may well irritate as many people as it entrances but for those willing to go along on its defiantly different wavelength will be rewarded with one of the more intriguing screen versions of classic literature to come along in some time.

For those of you who have somehow managed to get through your lives to date without having been exposed to the material before, it tells the story of Anna (Keira Knightley) and as it begins, she is pretty much on top of the world--she is married to a key government official (Jude Law), has a child that she dotes on and is one of the more celebrated members of Russian aristocracy circa 1874. Alas, all of that begins to crash down upon her when she ventures off to counsel sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) not to leave her husband (Matthew McFayden), Anna's brother, despite his numerous infidelities because of the scandal and loss of position such a move would incur. While disembarking the train, Anna makes the acquaintance of the young officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and from the moment they meet, sparks fly--sure some of them are the result of an accident at the station that kills a lowly railroad worker, but still. Making things even more complicated is the fact that Vronsky is the true love of Dolly's romantic younger sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and she has just spurned the marriage proposal of idealistic serf Levin (Donhnall Gleeson) in preparation to accept Vronsky's. However, at a ball later that night, it becomes evident to one and all--especially the heartbroken Kitty--that the Vronksy-Kitty nuptials will not be occurring anytime soon.

Anna and Vronsky embark on a mad and passionate affair and while Karenin is eventually made fully aware of it, he informs Anna that he is willing to essentially look the other way regarding it as long as she keeps it discreet so as to avoid scandal. Before long, Anna inevitably makes the mistake of publicly acknowledging her indiscretion and compounds that error by refusing to conceal it any more on the premise that her social standing is high enough to make her untouchable. That proves to be anything but the case and Anna quickly loses her marriage, her child and her reputation. in short order. She tries to build a new life with Vronsky but discovers to her horror that the ruin of her character will long outlast the already waning passion between them. While all this is going on, the misadventures of Levin and Kitty continue on as a sort of counterpoint to the main story suggesting that true love can win out over all obstacles.

In other words, this version of "Anna Karenina" is pretty much standard stuff in terms of the story--no radical rewrite along the lines of the ridiculous Demi Moore version of "The Scarlett Letter" here. However, it is the manner in which Wright and Stoppard have chosen to tell it that is so fascinating. While previous versions have take a realistic approach emulating Tolstoy's prose, Wright and Stoppard have employed a boldly theatrical cinematic style in which the vast majority of the story is told as if it were being handled as a highly choreographed theatrical piece, right down to many scenes taking place on a stage with backgrounds being mechanically moved around behind the actors. Only a few scenes--mostly the ones involving Levin and Kitty--are shot outdoors or in more naturalistic settings. Imagine "Moulin Rouge" sans the music and transformed into a Russian novel and you will have a reasonably decent grasp of what to expect.

The conceit may sound ridiculous and it does require a few minutes to get used to but I found myself growing more and more fascinated with it as the film went along. By theatricalizing Anna's story in such a way, it visualizes the concept that her entire existence up until meeting Vronsky has been in many ways like a play that she is starring in for an audience that laps it up as long as she follows her script--by going off-book with this new character, the mechanics that have governed her supposedly free existence reveal themselves as they begin crumbling down upon her. As for Levin and Kitty, they luckily manage to escape such a trap and are able to go through their lives free of the metaphorical spotlight. I have no doubt that this aspect of the film will no doubt divide viewers sharply between those who find it a brilliant bit of stylization and those who find it to be a pretentious wank but to these eyes, Wright--who demonstrated a flair for the theatrical in parts of "Atonement" that he builds upon here--and Stoppard have found thee key to making this more than just another run-through of otherwise familiar material.

Of course, the role of Anna is one that any actress worth her salt would kill to play--between the grand emotions, fabulous clothes and being front-and-center in nearly every scene, it is pretty much a dream part--and Keira Knightley, in her third collaboration to date with Wright (following "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement") proves herself to be more than up to the task. In a way, her work here reminded me of her exemplary, if little-seen, performance in David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" in the way that it deliberately starts off on a more stylized plane at first and gradually dials it back into more human terms as Anna begins to lose her sense of social invulnerability. Without downplaying Anna's self-absorbed qualities, Knightley still finds a way of making her sympathetic and this serves to make her downfall all the more painful to observe. As the men in her life, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson have both been perfectly cast as well--Law is especially strong as an essentially decent man who will do what he has to in order to preserve is honor and that of his child but not without a certain degree of regret when all is said and done. The rest of the roles are filled by an international case of familiar faces and all of them are quite good as well.

If there are flaws to this version of "Anna Karenina," they are the same that have befallen nearly every other previous version of the story--the amount of editing required to telescope the narrative into a two-hour running time, the confusion inspired by all the side characters with similar-sounding names and their subplots and the inescapable fact that Levin and Kitty, for all their innate decency, are among the most feckless and uninteresting characters in the history of classic literature. However, those problems are more than compensated for this time around thanks to the bold stylization that the material has received here and the strength of the performances. Whether or not the conceptual conceit will hold up under a second viewing remains to be seen but for the time being at least, "Anna Karenina" is a more-than-worthy film that eschews its museum-pieces trappings in order to live and breathe on its own. If only the same could be said for its heroine. . .

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23556&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/15/12 20:43:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/22/13 Annie G Creative adaptation - would've been tough to follow if I hadn't read the book recently! 3 stars
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  16-Nov-2012 (R)
  DVD: 19-Feb-2013


  DVD: 19-Feb-2013

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