First, I will admit the utmost lack of familiarity with Tolstoy’s original, late 19th century novel Anna Karenina. It’s a damn shame, I’ve been told by my uncle. “All Russian literature comes from Anna Karenina”, he told me, and although I hold a special place in my heart for Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, I see little reason to doubt his word. In any case, perhaps familiarity with the original text would have colored my initial reaction to Joe Wright’s most recent period piece, differently. But in all fairness it probably would have only made me angrier.
Let’s be honest, who other than Joe Wright, notable for his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, would use an all British cast when adapting a famous Russian novel? Which is not to say that they are all bad. Indeed it was quite refreshing to find Jude Law (Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes) in a non-sexy, non-action-star role. As Anna’s aging husband Alexei Karenin, the bespeckled bureaucrat, greying at the temples, reserved, always dressed in harsh colors, Jude Law could not look less like Jude Law. He’s a man who shirtlessly dug through a woman’s body in one of the sexiest operations ever (looking at you Repo Men) but here plays such an unmitigated bore that Anna choses Aaron Johnson over him.
And Aaron Johnson! I hardly recognized him as the same horny teenager that made Kick-Ass such a delight. I suppose if anything the supporting cast should be excluded from blame. They were doing the best they could with what they had to work with.
Joe Wright on the other hand. Much like Cloud Atlas, another film this fall that I found particularly vexatious, Anna Karenina frustrated me so much that I found it nearly impossible to focus on any particular point. This is a combination of both the directing and Keira Knightley’s performance- but more on her later.
Let me first say that the opening half hour of Anna Karenina is utterly spectacular, and that it deserves the make up/costume/set design accolades that are sure to come its way. But more than that, the opening segment of this film is simply unlike anything else to come out this year. The setting revolves around a grand theatre whose stage, orchestra pit, rafters, and back stage all provide the environments in which we become acquainted with the numerous characters. It’s marvelous to simply watch extras move props around and rearrange sets while the principle cast traverses these opening scenes. If anything this might have the best transitions I’ve seen all year as doors on stage open to new locales and curtains are pulled aside to reveal the Russian countryside being passed by. Visually, Anna Karenina is stunning.
If only they had kept it up. Despite the imaginative beginning, Anna Karenina soon settles into a typical period drama, albeit an entirely mediocre one. All that inventive set design at the beginning? All the beautiful transitions? Halfway through the movie you begin to wonder where they went, and it soon becomes apparent there is little rhyme or reason to when they are used.
Another seemingly interesting element is that of Anna walking into rooms where everybody is frozen place. Perhaps this is a way of visualizing Anna’s own selfishness and egocentrism, that literally the whole world is stopped until she chooses to engage it, but again this theme is only hinted at and then dropped without being fully explored. The reasons for such inconsistencies throughout the film appear two fold two-fold: one, that Joe Wright simply did not grasp what he was trying to direct and two, that Keira Knightley should not be allowed to try and carry a movie like this.
The thing is, by and large this movie isn’t terrible. And as I said previously, the beginning is even breathtaking. But when you are stuck at a manor or a large party, you begin to realize it’s not something that hasn’t been seen in a million other period films. Given a good cast and design, a film can sometimes rise above the muck to be something memorable. But most of the performances here are either so wooden or so bizarre that it simply becomes difficult to care what happens to the characters. I guess I felt bad for Anna’s husband, but then I became unsure if I was supposed to be rooting for him or against him. He is seemingly hindering her relationship with Vronsky, but also comes across as fairly sensible, even if just a bit boring. Clearer direction could have helped this.
The relationship between Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), which admittedly is well contrasted with Anna and Vronsky’s relationship, has some touching moments. Kitty originally rejects Konstantin’s proposal of marriage, prompting long shots of him toiling in a wheat field on the verge of tears, but eventually the two reconcile. However, why she changes her mind, other than her own rejection by Vronsky, is never really explained.
Anna’s own relationship with Vronsky is similarly muddled. Their attraction is never really explained. Suddenly they are in love! The only hint of a relationship we see is through side long glances cast at one another towards the beginning of the film. And if there were any chemistry between the two leads, and if either Keira Knightley could emote or Wright could direct anything that wasn’t as subtle as being hit in the face with a hammer, this might be enough. But it is hard to stay interested in a film if you feel nothing for the main characters.
Let’s visit one scene in particular. Anna, distressed, sick, and separated from her handsome army captain, sits in bed and begins to chop her hair off. This is where I began to seriously question what I was watching. Excuse me, but a more trite, cliche, adolescent and may I dare say lazy scene I have yet to see this year (and I did sit through all of Battleship and Taken 2). Here we have a character who is exhibiting emotional turmoil, and perhaps if Keira Knightley were a better actress we might be able to see this, but to have her cut her hair off? I might posit that Joe Wright’s understanding of emotions is that of a sixteen year old girl, given his already limited depiction of love in this film, but come on. This outward display of action in response to inner struggle might seem good on paper, but if Wright could depict a relationship in a manner that elicited sympathy from the audience, or if Knightley could act upset other than simply quivering her lip, cutting her hair wouldn’t even be necessary. And of course only a few scenes later, we see a bottle of morphine next to Anna’s bed. Cutting her hair and drugs! Why didn’t Wright just take a few seconds out of what is an already dragging film to flash in big, bright letters: ANNA’S SAD. I’m sorry, maybe it’s just me, but having to rely on substance abuse and cutting hair to get a message across to the viewer is so tired and uninspired that I almost find it insulting.
Equally upsetting is nearly the entirety of Knightley’s performance. Sure, it’s not like we expected much from her in the Pirates of the Caribbean Disney rides, other than to look pretty I guess, but even then the romance between her and Legolas was just plain boring. Luckily there were other flashy things to look at (like Johnny Depp) to distract from an actress who is simply unremarkable.
The name of the film is Anna Karenina, and as the titular character, one would at least hope Knightley’s performance would carry the film. If you can’t tell, she falls way short. It has become apparent over the years that Knightley is capable of playing only one role: Keira Knightley. Not only is it simply awkward to hear her try to pronounce Russian names, but it becomes incredibly difficult to care about anything Anna does. We are told she loves her son a great deal, but she only has a few scenes with him and those are so fleeting that no real sense of connection is established. Apparently to Knightley, loving a child means petting his head and saying his name over and over again without actually doing anything for him. We are told she is in a loveless marriage, but are never given an opportunity to see how exactly she is trapped, other than being shown that her husband is rather uptight, which I guess in the world of Joe Wright means utterly unromantic and loveless.
We are told that Anna loves Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson’s dashing captain), but we are never able to see that she loves him. Again, the blame falls squarely on both Wright’s direction and Knightley’s acting. Whether she’s supposed to be acting passionate or upset, any individual still from Anna Karenina would look pretty much the same.
Eyes moist, mouth partially open, but no real emotion coming through. She seems to think that one can get by through moving gracefully and doing that bizarre Keira Knightley laugh, but all of her emotions end up looking exactly the same.
Apparently the original novel plays with political and socioeconomic issues that were plaguing Russia at the time. A movie about that would be far more interesting than what we have here. Where an effective period drama like The King’s Speech or The Iron Lady use a combination of strong acting, costume design, and issues or anxieties relative to the time they are set in order to craft compelling character studies and effective stories, Anna Karenina does not do this. Anna Karenina is simply a love story, just one that is devoid of any real love. There is obsession, lust, jealousy, paranoia, philandering, as well as a fairy-tale romance between Konstantin and Kitty, but for all the emotions we are told about it’s hard to find any of them onscreen. Anna never does anything for Vronsky, her husband, or her children. Maybe if I had read the novel this would make sense, maybe she’s supposed to be unlovable (and delusional) but I’m judging this movie on its merit alone, and as it stands it’s not unlike it’s main character– beautiful and absolutely devoid of anything resembling depth.
All the beautiful costumes and sets don’t add anything to the film. It’s just window dressing. And sometimes it’s nice to watch a pretty movie, but that doesn’t make it good and that doesn’t mean it’s worth watching. Here we have a film that is spectacularly, utterly, mediocre which is what is so frustrating. If this was a bad movie it’d be easy to dismiss. But the beginning was so enchanting it’s difficult to not feel cheated. The fact that Anna Karenina couldn’t follow through on the promise of it’s opening might be the biggest tragedy of all.