Anna Karenina Review
All happy moviegoing experiences are like one another. All unhappy etcetera-blah-blah. You know.
Unless you don’t know because you’ve never read those first two sentences of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. And if you’ve never, then why not go read it before seeing a film version? And if you insist on a film version instead of sitting down to 800 pages of Russian literary epic, at least do yourself the favor of slowly backing away from this one. Resist the gravitational pull of Keira Knightley and any residual good feelings you still have about Pride and Prejudice, spend time with any of the umpteen other adaptations first. Their volume alone is the size of a miniature mountain.
That’s not to say that this mistake of an experiment in form isn’t really pretty to look at it. It’s exceptionally pretty. But it’s a prettiness that’s precious and small thanks to director Joe Wright’s decision to stage almost all the action on a set that resembles a 19th century theater. Characters crowd the wings and rafters, the ones on stage act out their extravagantly choreographed tragedies in front of painted murals and wooden set backdrops, skating parties spill onto the floor just in front of the boards on slide-ready fake ice and, least imposing of all, model trains — covered in what appears to be that spray-can flocking people used to put on their Christmas trees — stand in for powerful Russian locomotives. How is a well-bred adultress expected to properly commit suicide by hurling herself in front of a train if it’s Lionel-sized and seats Stuart Little?
Another problem: when the natural is evicted the artificial moves in. Big, unruly emotions turn precise and performative and the wildfire of forbidden love becomes as safe and unthreatening as a pair of mitten-sized handwarmers. Knightley uses up all the acting space in this jewel box she’s been given to live in, but you never get the sense that her behavior will result in any danger until her cuckolded husband (Jude Law) spells out for her the social and legal doom she faces if she can’t keep it in her pants. Meanwhile, her allegedly lust-inducing paramour, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), enduring the same physical staging constraints and forced by the demands of theatrical artifice to twirl like a dancer into his overcoat every time a servant holds it open for him, registers as a temptation somewhere on the level of a plate of Keebler Pecan Sandies. Why are these two in love? Because they’re both attractive? We’re never really sure.
The film comes to life when the camera moves outside to track the scythe-wielding gentleman farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). His interactions with the seemingly unattainable Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and the appetite-indulging Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), with all that purity on one hand and all that happy gluttony and lechery on the other, should rightly provide a counterweight to the heaviness of scandalously unbridled sex between Anna and Vronsky. But their affair barely registers as anything more than additional decoration squeezed into an already ornate historical diorama and it leaves you wondering who you’re supposed to be rooting for. The trains, it turns out.
By Dave White