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Review: 'Anna Karenina' Is A Bold Reimagining Of A Classic That's (Mostly) Thrilling & Inventive

by Oliver Lyttelton
September 2, 2012 7:53 PM
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When it was announced that Joe Wright was going to direct a new film version of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," starring his cinematic muse Keira Knightley, most people probably knew what to expect. After all, the two had collaborated on both Wright's debut "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" (both also produced by Working Title Films) and it was easy to assume that their take on the Russian classic would be along similar lines; a handsome period piece taking advantage of the best British actors available, and with a few showy camera touches that would set it apart from your average costume drama.

And in some ways, they would be right. But as it turns out, Wright, presumably let free a little by his experimental pop-art action movie "Hanna" last year, was up to something bolder: a heavily stylized, theatrical version that takes the story and sets most (but not quite all) of it within the confines of grand, but faded, theater, making sure the artifice is never concealed. Would it be an ingenious reimagining of an oft-told tale (last seen on the big screen in Bernard Rose's 1997 version, starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean)? Or a style-over-substance take that attempts to fix what was never broken? Despite a conceit that isn't 100% watertight, it's happily closer to the former, thanks to Wright's bold vision, a tremendous adaptation by Sir Tom Stoppard, and a superb cast.

"Anna Karenina"

The plot for the most part remains the same; indeed, Stoppard has somehow managed to put together something more faithful than the novel than most takes, despite a just-this-side-of-a-bum-numbing 130 minute running time. Anna Karenina (Knightley), who married and had a son with her successful St. Petersburg politician husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) at a young age, comes to Moscow to visit her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, bedecked in a magnificent walrus mustache), who's just been caught philandering with the governess by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). There's another visitor in town too, Oblonsky's friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a simple farmer, who's come to propose to the object of his affections, Dolly's sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander).

But Kitty is in turn in love with young soldier Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and rebuffs a heartbroken Levin. But she's soon just as disappointed as Anna and Vronsky meet at a ball, and fall passionately in love. She initally tries to resist, but when Vronsky follows her to St. Petersburg, a passionate affair begins, one that can only have tragic consequences...

Title aside, it's surprising the degree to which Stoppard's script focuses on those who aren't Anna, and Levin in particular, and it's this approach that's key to Wright's grand conceit. He's a pastoral fellow, one who's happier with the simple pleasures, in marked contrast to the trivial frolicking of the city classes, and the director drives this home by shooting all of the Moscow and St. Petersburg scenes within the grand, theatrical soundstage (which even includes rafters and backstage areas, hammering home its Brechtian nature), and opening out to location work when Levin returns to the countryside for a life of purity and goodness.  

It's a neat way to encapsulate one of the novels' major fascinations, and for the most part, it works both thematically and cinematically. Many may get turned off early on by the sheer theatricality, particularly as Wright launches into it at full speed, with a dizzying opening reel. One imagines, from the red curtain and prosecenium arch that make up the first image on screen that Baz Luhrmann was something of an inspiration, but the director settles down from a manic opening, and it begins to feel more like the bold, technicolor work of Powell & Pressburger than anything else. And after that bumpy opening, it starts to feel like second nature, even when the space is transformed into an ice rink, a train station, or, most memorably, a racetrack.

For one, the film looks truly stunning, thanks to spectacular costume and production design work, and some of Wright and DoP Seamus McGarvey's now trademark tracking shots (which somehow feel less shoehorned-in or at least, more in keeping with the style of the piece as a whole, than in previous work), while McGarvey embraces the nature of the concept with some beautiful, and very theatrical lighting. Crucially, the artifice also doesn't overwhelm the performances, or the narrative. We certainly bought into the situation as much as we would have in a more traditional approach.

It's a shame, then, that Wright leaves seemingly leaves some holes in his conceit. It makes sense -- indeed, it's hugely refreshing -- when the theater's doors open, and Levin walks out into the snow. Only then do you realize how claustrophobic and confining it's felt within Russian society. But it feels less thematically well-reasoned when Anna and Vronsky romp together in the countryside. Is their love the kind of purity of existence that Levin seeks? Have they been freed from society? It starts to pull at the threads of the universe that Wright's established, which is a shame when the rest of it seems to have been so carefully planned out. It doesn't help that some of the interior scenes with Levin feel just as claustrophobic -- the first time he retreats to his cottage, you might as well be back inside the theater.

It's a shame, given that Wright gets about 90% of the way, but it's also fortunate, then, that the foundations on which the theater are built, as it were, are so solid. Stoppard's script is occasionally a little muddy when it comes to geography and character relations, but for the most part it fits an expansive tale into the running time (which reaches its conclusion just as you start to feel it) elegantly and inventively, and manages to feature wit, poetry and real feeling as well. It's virtually the model for a good adaptation.

Almost without exception, the cast are terrific too. Knightley continues to go from strength to strength with each project, giving Anna a flightiness and impulsiveness that feel almost more like an Ibsen heroine than a Tolstoy one, but it's a smart take on the character, and she truly impresses when she lets the fireworks fly towards the end. Law is excellent too, in a part that's older and more buttoned-up than the kind he normally gets; the perspective of the script is more empathetic to Karenin than you might expect, and the actor succeeds entirely in giving you reason to feel for him, while also making you understand why Anna might turn elsewhere.

They're the bigger names in the ensemble, but it's one of real depth and variety; so much so that one feels that certain cast members get short shrift. Emily Watson, Shirley Henderson and Olivia Williams feel particularly underused, while a rising star like Vicky McClure ("This Is England") crops up, only to be denied a line at all. Still, several actors do manage to make a real impression. Matthew MacFayden is enjoyably broad, a world away from his Mr. Darcy, as Oblonsky, threatening, but never quite managing to, tip into caricature, and his approach pays off beautifully with a single heartbreaking shot near the end. And as his wife, Kelly MacDonald perhaps doesn't get as much screen time as we'd like, but she's also warm, sweet and smarter than she might at first appear.

Best of all are Domnhal Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, as faltering would-be lovers Levin and Kitty. They're the least well-known names among the principal cast, but on this basis, it's unlikely to remain that way for long. Gleeson effortlessly shows the good-hearted nature of Levin, but isn't afraid to dig into the hypocrisy of the character, while Vikander does wonders with a tricky part that's written on the page as to be almost saint-like, but she never lets you forget the real human being there as well. The two have great chemistry together, as well, with one scene involving letter-blocks that's more romantic and sensual than a dozen sex scenes. The lone disappointement is Taylor-Johnson; he acquits himself fairly well for much of the film without ever quite impressing, and starts to feel a little out of his depth by the time the stakes are raised.

We suspect, all in all, that the film is going to divide people enormously. There'll be some who get turned off the concept from the start and never get on board. And that's fine, but we hope they don't miss the pleasures the film contains as a result -- McGarvey's spectacular camerawork, Dario Marianelli's handsome score, weaving niftily between being diagetic and non-diagetic and the intelligence and intimacy of the performances. As for ourselves, we found it both fascinatingly theatrical and thrillingly cinematic, a picture that's lingered on our minds more than we expected, and while not quite an unreserved cause for celebration, it's a film that we cherish despite its flaws. [B+]

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  • Lucy | September 4, 2012 1:09 AMReply

    Great!!! Levin is my favorite character so I'm glad to see he gets some good screen time. I like Keira but I really wish Michelle Dockery was given the role of Anna. Oh well I still look forward to seeing this! :-)

  • josh | September 3, 2012 1:28 PMReply

    I was reading this review with one eye closed (rushing through the novel now). very excited to see the film and glad that Levin gets some time. i really saw something special in Wright with HANNA, it's nice to see a critic who trusts him a bit and looks for goodness there.

  • Sara | September 3, 2012 10:46 AMReply

    I so want to watch this movie!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Angelina | September 3, 2012 9:46 AMReply

    You gave [B+] for both "Anna Karanina" and "Rust and Bone". After having seen "Rust & Bone" a few month ago and Marion Cotillard's amazing, astonishing, remarkable breathtaking performance and would love you to tell us who did you prefer because Keira K. and Marion C. are this year obvious early front runner for the oscar. My choice is Marion Cotillard even if i haven't seen "A.K", marion is still under my skin 3 month later

  • ANGELINA | September 5, 2012 8:23 PM

    I respect everybody's choice and even if Oliver would prefer Kiera i would also be happy because wathever what you can think i don't hate her. You sounds like Kiera's lawyer! By the way, The Oscars impose themself like the Graal for ANY actor around the world so it's perfectly normal that we give it also to foreign people because we americans actually give pretty much 90% of our oscars to...... Oh! American people or american productions for giving the impression that we are better than everybody else, wich is terribly wrong, sorry!

  • Cate | September 3, 2012 5:42 PM

    First of all: actors in foreign language films that make an impact on the international level have not been disadvantaged on the Oscar front in recent years; Audiard's work has in recent years come to immense international accolades, so you need not worry about the "it was an honour just to be nominated" angle. Furthermore: it's clear that your mind is made up on the question of who could have turned in the better performance (which is purely subjective) (and I should mention once again that you're making this judgment call despite not having seen one of the films), so I'm not sure what you're getting out of trying to put Oliver on the spot? Either he's going to say Marion and you're going to happily agree with him, or he's going to say Keira and you're going to less-than-happily disagree.

  • ANGELINA | September 3, 2012 4:14 PM

    You are right sorry she beat her in 2008 for the BAFTA

  • gg | September 3, 2012 3:38 PM

    LOL what? Marion never beat Keira. Keira was nominated in 2005. And it's Anna Karenina.

  • ANGELINA | September 3, 2012 1:33 PM

    You are right, but i never talked about being fair. My question was for the critic, he is the lonely one who has seen both movie. My feeling about Anna Katarina is that the drama seems less powerful than "Rust & Bone". You know sometimes you just fell in love in a particular way with one performance like Charlize Theron's 2003 "Monster", Meryl Streep's 1983 "Sophie's choice" or Marion Cotillard's 2008 "la vie en rose". My guess is that if they both get a nomination it's gonna be 2008 all over again when Marion beat Kiera. And i just said it was STILL under my skin which means it's there from the moment i saw it. She is so naturally expressive and beautiful, she really made me cry and rethink about my life. THAT is a performance that really deserves to be recognize. I know it's a french movie, i know it's a french actress and i know she already won one but Maryl got 3 after all. At least a nomination (for a foreign movie) will already feel like a victory.

  • Cate | September 3, 2012 12:41 PM

    ... you haven't seen this film, though, so I don't understand how you can claim to have made a choice just yet. And nobody has had three months during which they could let Anna Karenina get under their skin (whether it will do so or not is a different question) since it was only screened for critics within presumably the last two weeks or so. Won't it make more sense to make the comparison after giving both films -- and indeed, both performances -- a fair chance?

  • notconvinced | September 3, 2012 5:13 AMReply

    Sorry Oliver, can't really take your criticism seriously when you give a film like The Master that is truly the work of an auteur and an undeniably talented and daring cast of actors a "B"; and then proceed to give a Wright + Knightley vehicle a "B+". They are two of the most overrated director and actresses around, always style over substance and continually doing the same old dull shtick. Disappointing.

  • Sam | October 26, 2012 4:55 AM

    Don't know why you guys are being so defensive, lots of other people complain when they think a grade has been unfairly given - just go check out other reviews! (I mean I also have a gripe with how this superficial glorified fashion film is getting the same "grade" as the relevatory truly master of a film Amour). That's why I actually agree that playlists grading system is misleading. P.S. @JAKEBOT you seem to be the only one living at the bottom of the barrel - no need to be so pretentious!

  • notconvinced | September 4, 2012 12:25 PM

    @TOM @JAKEBOT @OLIVER LYTTELTON I actually wish they/you didn't grade either. But yes I did read the reviews... And felt that both reviews didn't actually match the grades, which is why I feel the grading system is misleading. And I read many reviews from many different sources (usually preferring Little White Lies scoring system if any at all). Further, I really like your reviews which is why I come back to the site, was just a little disappointed this particular film got so much credit...

  • jakebot | September 3, 2012 7:34 PM

    I would suspect that the reviewers on this site (and, perhaps, many others) would very much like to NOT give any simplified ratings of a film. However, philistines need their feed and feed you lot will. A+ for living at the bottom of the barrel.

  • CONVINCED | September 3, 2012 5:20 PM

    I just KNEW a PTA fanboy would come in here to bitch. How embarrassing for you.

  • Cate | September 3, 2012 12:44 PM

    Then by all means, stop taking his criticism seriously?

  • Ring a ling | September 3, 2012 12:01 PM

    Didn't To The Wonder get an A minus? LOL

  • Chase | September 3, 2012 9:46 AM

    @NOTCONVINCED, because there's a VAST difference between a B and a B+. Leave Oliver alone and go fap your wang to The Master on another page. He gave a solid review and its a review of HIS opinion, not yours.

  • Tom | September 3, 2012 9:29 AM

    I wish indiewire would stop grading reviews so that people would actually read them

  • Oliver Lyttelton | September 3, 2012 8:25 AM

    The Master is a film that I like enormously, that I also have some problems with. Anna Karenina is a film that I like enormously, that I also have some problems with. It couldn't be that you're hung up on mostly arbitrary grades, after having seen neither film or read neither review, could it?

  • Awesome | September 3, 2012 6:13 AM

    He's entitled to an opinion and I highly doubt you've seen either let alone both films.

  • notconvinced | September 3, 2012 5:33 AM

    **and yes even same old dull shtick with a probably brilliant and interesting script by Stoppard.

  • Cate | September 2, 2012 11:13 PMReply

    So glad to hear such glowing praise about Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander! I always had a suspicion that Stoppard would find a way to make the Levin/Kitty story an adroit counterweight to Anna's, and it's a relief to hear that these promising relative newcomers pull it off. CANNOT wait to see this at TIFF.

  • Oogle monster | September 2, 2012 11:09 PMReply

    Wright is a hugely talented actor... I hope he gets the Oscar nom he missed out for when Atonement was nominated for everything but best director! Also, I feel like all the hype surrounding AT-J is fading... he didn't impress in Savages (though, who really did?) and most of the reviews for this film are pointing at him as the weak link. I thought he was fine in Kick Ass but it's a little disappointing that his post-comic career isn't as great as some of us expected. In any case, Oscar prospects? I'm thinking picture, actress, and potentially supporting actor with a bunch of below the belt nominations.

  • TR | September 2, 2012 11:29 PM

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson is only 22. He hasn't even had a chance to develop much "hype." He's impressed in every film he's done up to this point and has had rave reviews, especially Nowhere Boy, and including Savages from what I remember reading (although the film itself had mixed reviews). Also, once a reviewer writes that someone is a weak link in a film, they all tend to follow suit and repeat each other. It happens all the time.

  • oogle monster | September 2, 2012 11:09 PM

    Wright is not an actor... I meant director. SORRY! Damn ipad.

  • Alan | September 2, 2012 9:56 PMReply

    "The lone disappointement is Taylor-Johnson; he acquits himself fairly well for much of the film without ever quite impressing, and starts to feel a little out of his depth by the time the stakes are raised." Well, yeah ... that's kind of the point of the characters: he's inadequate. It's like watching a film about Ancient Rome and then complaining that Mark Antony is an inadequate substistute for Caesar. He's supposed to look the part (charming, masculine with just the hint of sensitivity), but ultimately fail as a lover.

  • TR | September 2, 2012 11:21 PM

    Agree. Joe Wright's films are like his children, each of them are uniquely very special. If Taylor-Johnson was the "lone disappointment" Joe Wright would not have put him in his film. ATJ did exactly what Wright wanted.

  • C | September 2, 2012 9:52 PMReply

    Thank you, Oliver, thank you for being the one person at The Playlist that gets Aaron Taylor-Johnson's name right!

  • Alan | September 2, 2012 9:47 PMReply

    "'Anna Karenina' Is A Bold Reimagining Of A Classic That's (Mostly) Thrilling & Inventive" So, is the classic meant to be thriller and inventive or the film?

  • David Lean | September 2, 2012 9:43 PMReply

    I would give it an A- not B+
    Still, a wonderful review. I hope Keira Knightley can finally get the recognition she deserves, especially in her homeland. BAFTA, I am looking at you.

  • Ира | September 3, 2012 3:17 PM

    Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen, no Bronte.

  • Skippy | September 3, 2012 3:03 PM

    If you're a literature student, I think you would probably want to do an edit of the second sentence in your second comment. I know you meant well.

  • David Lean Fan | September 3, 2012 11:02 AM

    She didn't take you on a journey in Pride and Prejudice? As a literature student who first read Bronte's novel at the age of 13 and has been faithfully re-reading it ever since, Knightley as Lizzy took me on a spellbinding journey; it was a fiercely quiet performances with so many subtleties with I still pick up during subsequent views.
    She didn't take you on a journey with Last Night? her most naturalistic performance to date. The entire movie feels like it was done in one take and Keira was particularly effective.
    She didn't take you on a journey with The Duchess? Never Let Me Go? as the malicious yet mildly sympathetic Ruth? Or was Elizabeth Swann in The Curse of the Black Pearl? Wow! your loss sir because Keira has delivered some truly phenomenal performances. Your loss. To a lot of us, she has taken us on numerous journeys and it seems like it Anna Karenina, she will be taking us on her most challenging and heart wrenching journey yet.

  • notsure | September 3, 2012 5:16 AM

    Recognition she deserves? She actually gets a lot of recognition and credit - why else would she continually be hired? And I dont think any of it is deserved. I have never fully been taken on a journey when i watch her, always painfully obvious that she's acting.

  • João | September 2, 2012 8:11 PMReply

    Wonderful review! I can't wait to see it!

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