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Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina (2012)

Directed by: Joe Wright

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Set in 19th Century Russia, an aristocrat (Keira Knightley) enters into an affair and suffers the social consequences.   

What Works: There have been at least seventeen adaptations of Anna Karenina since the 1935 version starring Greta Garbo and the filmmakers of the 2012 version attempt, at least early in the picture, to add something fresh to the material. The opening uses a theater-like setup with curtains, background mattes, and sets that roll in and out. The camera moves in and out of these sequences very fluidly and the choreography of actors, props, and camera work is really impressive. Similarly impressive are ballroom scenes in which Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) meets love interest Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for the first time. The subtext of the scene is conveyed very effectively in the way the characters move on the dance floor and had the rest of the film stuck with this kind of style it might have been a much more successful adaptation.

What Doesn’t: The 2012 edition of Anna Karenina has a lot of problems. The theater-like style of the opening does not seem to be based on any narrative or thematic reason and after using that style to start the picture, the filmmakers abandon it for a more conventional cinematic approach. The shift is odd and when the film diverts to this familiar style the movie often looks like every other period costume drama. But the mortal flaws of Anna Karenina are not so much cinematic as they are narrative. Stories can generally be thought of as fitting into one of three categories, depending on their emphasis: character, plot, or style. Plot oriented films are defined most strongly by the twists and turns of the narrative, as the characters are often subservient to the action. Style oriented films are more about whimsy and both character and plot are often treated as afterthoughts to the eccentricities of the filmmaker; the movies of the Coen Brothers exemplify this. Character oriented stories generally focus on dissecting the main character or a group of characters by closely analyzing their choices and behaviors. Anna Karenina is a character-based story and that alone makes it a challenge to adapt into cinema, since character-based stories generally don’t have the kind of action that successfully translates into a motion picture. This becomes all the more problematic in the case of Anna Karenina; the book is an 800-page saga of intricate relationships that is ill suited for adaptation into a two-hour film. In the process of culling the story down to a feature length the filmmakers have cut out the subtleties of the relationships, thereby removing the essence of what makes Anna Karenina a great story. What remains does not have enough plot beats to it and the changes in characters’ demeanor and fortunes suffer from whiplash. Characters go from being strangers to being in love to being on the rocks with little or no gradation in between. Without character defining moments that substantiate love and loss and without meaningful characters to suffer through them, the romance is doomed. A love story can’t succeed without desire and all desire is rooted in character.

Bottom Line: Anna Karenina is a disappointment. Viewers who are unfamiliar with the novel are likely to be lost but those who have read it aren’t going to get much out of this adaptation. It is possible that Anna Karenina could be adapted into a two-hour film but that would require a reimagining of the story that these filmmakers don’t attempt. The 2012 version of Anna Karenina retains most of the telltale elements of the novel but they aren’t executed in a way that is dramatically engaging.

Episode: #421 (January 6, 2013)