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Anna Karenina

2012 | 130 min | R | 2.39:1

Anna Karenina


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Theatrical release date

 16 November, 2012
 07 September, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

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Anna Karenina Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, November 15, 2012

Over the course of his last four features, director Joe Wright has developed a cinematic style that’s been irresistible to study, creating seemingly infinite screen pleasures in efforts such as “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “The Soloist,” and “Hanna.” Masterminding a unique creative challenge with Leo Tolstoy’s celebrated novel, “Anna Karenina,” Wright imagines another lush world of stunning cinematography, lavish costuming, and impossibly beautiful production design. However, it remains “Anna Karenina,” a tale of jealousy and tragedy that, pointed in wrong direction, generates immense discomfort with unpleasant characters and their superficial concerns. Wright brings out the big guns to press his fingerprint on a classic story, but the material is too leaden to move as spryly as a helmer intends.

In 19th century Russia, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) lives a distanced life with husband Alexei (Jude Law), clinging to the love of her son to make her life matter. During a time of reputation and rumor in high society, Anna finds herself drawn to Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young man of passion and concentration, who sweeps the married woman off her feet, commencing a heated affair that consumes them both. Shamed but unwilling to break, Alexei hopes to keep Anna’s feeling contained for the sake of their public lives, yet she cannot help herself, growing possessive of Vronsky as he entertains other opportunities for marriage when his future with Anna clouds with doubt. Also involved in the story is Konstantin Levin (Domhall Gleeson), a landowner desperate to marry love Kitty (Alicia Vikander), but isn’t able to catch her attention when flashier suitors stake their claim. Spilling his woes to friend Oblonksy (Matthew Macfadyen), Levin continues down a path of honor and hard work, hoping to one day entice Kitty with his remarkable character.

Wright’s take on “Anna Karenina” almost defies description, taking place inside an empty theater with a single stage. We watch as characters enter and exit, while sets change with scene transitions, following a gliding camera as it observes the bustle of a theatrical presentation, moving up into the rafters and out into the audience space. Wright takes this fabricated foundation and weaves in elements of reality, blurring the boundaries around artificiality as toy trains become the real deal, while outdoor excursions into the Russian countryside exist through doorways in painted backgrounds. It’s a puzzle meticulously orchestrated by the production, with Wright exploring his directorial capabilities to the max, creating a specialized visual impression able to stamp an identity on the umpteenth telling of this tale.

“Anna Karenina” is dazzling, surprising, and crisply defined, with cinematography by Seamus McGarvey elegant and convincing with its literary and theatrical textures. Costumes by Jacqueline Durran are sensual and exotic, wrapping the titular character in an array of fabrics that speak more about the character’s moods than Knightley’s performance. And Sarah Greenwood’s production design achievements are second to none, overseeing one of the most intricately assembled features of 2012, a task that demands blending the unreality of the stage and Wright’s film history interests when the action heads outdoors, with nods to “Doctor Zhivago” and “Days of Heaven” creating indelible images of architecture and the hardship of labor. It’s a masterfully manufacture picture, keeping Wright an engaged conductor managing style and exaggerated body movement, emphasizing the emotional speeds of the material. In terms of sound and vision, this “Anna Karenina” is unforgettable.

Dramatically speaking, Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard manage to grind the soulfulness of the story into dust, struggling for over two hours to make these characters count as more than dress-up dolls and fantasy figures. However, it’s impossible to dig into Anna’s experience with social shunning and romantic dismissal when she’s such a selfish character, willingly torching her unsettled life on a frivolous love affair with clueless younger man. The screenplay hopes to garner sympathy for the couple and their quest to be together, but it’s a fool’s errand, especially when the casting of Taylor-Johnson results in a dimly defined Vronsky (the role requires an actor of more substance), while Knightley elects the hysterical route in a tuneless performance, though she looks ridiculously regal in those outfits. The plot’s structure of community acceptance, matchmaking, and unforgivable betrayals registers too mechanically, lacking force required to invest in the plight of these miserable fools. Only two performances manage to crack the veneer of doom, watching Law discover a subtle wash of humiliation as the rejected Alexei, while Macfayden hits mercifully broad beats as Oblonsky, adding a dash of humor to the grim saga.

Wright’s experimental ways and baroque appetites keep “Anna Karenina” tempting, but even an exhaustive appreciation of the surface qualities wears thin in the second half, with both plots of love and loss evenly matched in their ineffectiveness. While I remain convinced of Wright’s directorial gifts, “Anna Karenina” represents his first real misfire as a filmmaker, sweating to create a swirling show of blinding artistry, when all it really needed was a point of entry.

Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Alicia Vikander, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald
Director: Joe Wright

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