HST…Film Review: Anna Karenina

Lauren:  With this theatre inspired adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina, Joe Wright and Keira Knightley manage to produce a film worthy of following up their other work together, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.

Prior to this film, the only other real knowledge of this book was through the play Anna in the Tropics, in which this Russian novel was read to the workers in the cigar factory setting who had a funny way of pronouncing Karen-nina.  They would lose themselves in the words of this epic love story, something that I told myself might be more of a challenge for me if I would have to trudge once again through the harsh Russian setting.  I’d already ventured through this depressingly frozen world once before with the tragically romantic Dr. Zhivago (surprise, surprise, Keira Knightley was in an adaptation of this book as well), and I honestly didn’t know if I could do it again.

Then Joe Wright came along.

Zac: He certainly gives the film a unique direction and the theatrical setting really helped keep the film bowling forward, never losing the viewers interest.  I will say that I don’t really see this as some grand love story, not where I was expecting at least, but instead is a fantastic look at the society of the times and the power they can have over the people in them. The romance of the film is fairly predictable and our lead love affair isn’t that sympathetic, I was far more taken by the film’s side characters and how the decisions of a pair of selfish and fool hearted lovers affected those around them. This isn’t meant to marginalize the main couple’s story, especially Knightley’s title character, it is vital to this Russian epic, it just wasn’t the most compelling narrative in the film.

All this said, as much as I enjoyed the film I did feel like I couldn’t quite connect to the characters emotionally. I was engaged by them, but I think the film’s theatrical device might have kept them at an arm’s distance that I couldn’t get through. I don’t know how much this necessarily hurt my enjoyment of the film as I was riveted from start to finish, but it was odd to be so engaged yet distant at the same time.

Lauren:  The theatricality of it all will definitely marginalize audiences, but I never stopped being in awe of how the proscenium style theatre was presented in many scenes.  Maybe we aren’t meant to sympathize with the main character since what she does isn’t altogether “proper,” instead rather greedy, but I can understand why she did it based on how Jude Law’s character treated her.  She was looking for something more, and we get to judge her, as the rest of her world does, as her life is presented on the stage.

Zac: I have to stand up for Jude Law here, he might not be the most romantic guy, and his creepy little sex box is kind of terrifying, but he didn’t really do anything “wrong”.

Lauren: Nothing wrong, but also nothing for her in general, causing a look of loss in her eyes when she mentions to a younger girl that she was married at eighteen.

From scene transitions, to musicians accompanying the soundtrack within the scenes, to the freedom to go for grand choices that defy realism, Wright makes the most of this theme by weaving it in and out as gracefully as possible, often devoting huge chunks of the story to this pace by moving the scenes around the characters, or having  a street scene take place within the same building that a work conversation did in order to keep the story from bogging itself down in that Russian world.  The choreography in these moments is phenomenal, and from time to time brings up memories of the five minute tracking shot in Atonement.  People will freeze in place and stare at Karenina when she feels her most vulnerable, extremely audible gasps will emphasize a moment of loss of propriety, a horse race will run cross stage as the audience sits and watches, I seriously couldn’t get enough of this.  And that toy train…

Speaking of choreography, the dancing takes an upgraded step as well from those in Pride & Prejudice, working in this type of dance in which more often than not the dancers mime touching each other as their arms flow around their partner.  He doesn’t quite go for the dance and talk that he did in this previous film, but that is not to say that a lot isn’t said in these moments.  I just wish that maybe he had decided against pulling the rest of the dancers out of the scene so that our two lovers could be alone was something he did once before with Elizabeth  Bennet and Mr. Darcy, so this moment wasn’t quite as effective, even if the reason behind it here had a slightly different meaning.

Zac: I can’t really complain with anything you’re saying, though I did enjoy the technical impressiveness of pulling everyone out of that couple shot, as the film is just a technical marvel.  I love that modern filmmakers have been taking these once boring period films and continually inject contemporary filmmaking to make them more than just a good story.

The actors are also pretty great from top to bottom, and I wished the story was a bit more balanced away from the leads in the later half.  Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander are all great in their side stories, and I found myself missing them when they went away for extended periods of times.  Aaron Johnson is the weak link, though this is his best work since Nowhere Boy, but it might also just be bad luck that he is put against Jude Law and Keira Knightley who are as good as ever.  Knightley slowly breaks down as Law gains strength and the two are electric when they get in a room together.

Lauren:  I will always think of Johnson as the nerd in a green suit from Kick-Ass, so I was honestly impressed with his turn as a man capable of bringing this desire out of a married woman.  Matter of fact, add Law’s haircut on top of that and he should count himself lucky that this transgression is just happening now.

As much as I laugh to myself about this hair and the mustaches guarding the upper lips of the cast, the costuming becomes an added layer of art to the already deeply rich canvass of design work.  There is no doubt that this department will be up for an Oscar nomination come award season, and I hope it is not alone.  Anna Karenina is quite the sight to see, and an experience that doesn’t come often enough away from the high concept world of theatre.  So thank goodness the theatre was brought to the screen.

Lauren’s Final Grade: A-     
Zac’s Final Grade: A-     

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