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Anna Karenina

by Leonard Maltin
November 16, 2012 12:55 AM
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Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy Focus Features

I suppose that scholars might dismiss the 1935 MGM production of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo as superficial, yet that film lingers in my memory, even though I haven’t seen it in years…whereas I couldn’t wait for this new version to end. It comes with impeccable credentials, including a screenplay by the eminent playwright Tom Stoppard and a reteaming of Keira Knightley with her Pride and Prejudice and Atonement director, Joe Wright. Sorry to say, the best laid plans go astray in this handsome but ponderous production.

The film’s greatest failing is in making us feel the anguish of Anna’s doomed relationship with Count Vronsky (played by an ineffectual Aaron Johnson, who is now billing himself as Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The leading man preens and puffs himself up but never gives us reason to empathize with him. Absent that, the story is just a lavishly-costumed charade.

Courtesy of Focus Features

It was Wright who had the idea of staging the story’s establishing scenes (and later linking footage) in a decaying theater. The meaning of this visual metaphor is never made clear, though it captures one’s attention at first. Many of the film’s conceits are similarly opaque, adding nothing except meaningless window dressing. (In the press notes, I learned that members of Russia’s high society in the late 19th century looked to Europe for inspiration in their mode of dress and manner, even lining their ballrooms with mirrors so they could observe themselves. It’s too bad this isn’t made clear in the film itself.)

Keira Knightley does a capable job as Anna, and she is surrounded by talented actors including Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen and Alicia Vikander (the star of A Royal Affair), but without that vital emotional connection, this Anna Karenina lands with a thud.

Images From Anna Karenina

  • Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

    Alicia Vikander is Kitty
  • Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

    Vikander with Domhnall Gleeson who portrays Levin
  • Photo By Laurie Sparham - Courtesy Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Count Vronsky) escorts Vikander
  • Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

    Olivia Williams, as Countress Vronsky, meets Knightley on board train.
  • Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson
  • Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

  • Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

  • Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

    Matthew Macfadyen plays Anna's brother, Oblonsky
  • Photo by Laurie Sparham - Courtesy of Focus Features
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    Anna Karenina

    Jude Law and Knightley as man and wife
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  • Kathy | November 24, 2012 1:13 AMReply

    While I respect your views on this film Leonard and have respected many others, there's more to this film if you look to some of the other performances also, like the versitile Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky and especially Jude Law as the sublime withholding Karenin. There performances I think are flawless and it's kind of fitting that while we grow to hate the main players we are fascinatingly drawn to the more naturalistic portrayal of Levin, which in all other takes of this classic miss the mark. Worth a second look! ;-)

  • Jeffrey | November 22, 2012 10:47 AMReply

    Although this may be an inferior rendition, it still has a good chance to land a Best Picture nod from the Oscars. Well nigh incomprehensible.

  • Davey | November 16, 2012 8:34 PMReply

    I've always liked the Garbo film but I actually found this new take on Anna Karenina very strong and bold. I'm glad Wright didn't make a typical period film. The film is well acted and beautifully designed.

  • Kim | November 16, 2012 1:34 PMReply

    Completely agreed. An absolutely beautiful production, but one severely lacking in emotion.

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