REVIEW: Anna Karenina

25 11 2012

Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a cinematic version of Tolstoy’s treasure meant for people who love “Anna Karenina.”  In other words, if you haven’t read it or spent time with other film adaptations, this film will be as lost on you as it was on me.  It’s a stylized take on the classic that leaves those watching the film trying to decipher the plot in the dust.  (Recommendation: read a plot summary beforehand.)

Wright is trying to do a master class on “Anna Karenina” by doing something unconventional with the staging: that is, to literally set it on a stage.  The setting works well as a clever metaphor for Russian high society and breathes some new life into the dusty tale.  And kudos to Wright for trying to break out of his doldrums of conventionality that have led to a string of mediocre films that have fallen ever so short of success.

However, the extended metaphor is quickly revealed to be incredibly quixotic; that is, idealistic but not practical.  If you’ve ever seen a copy of Tolstoy’s book in print, you would certainly notice it’s a hefty volume that is sure to have quite a sprawling narrative.  The story of “Anna Karenina” takes us to all sorts of locales, many of which simply don’t work inside of a theatre or stage setting.

So rather than try to make it work, Wright hits us over the head with it in the first act … and then essentially discards it when no longer expedient.  With a little more thought, it could have yielded all sorts of revelations about the story.  But as it appears on screen in his final version, the metaphor is unfulfilled.

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

The stage aids some understanding of Wright’s relatively slender adaptation, but it often confounds the meaning of certain scenes.  When something takes place behind the stage or in the wings, what location is that possibly supposed to signify?  We definitely aren’t given any help from Tom Stoppard’s script.  His dialogue comes off like an abridged copy of Tolstoy, a “No Fear Anna Karenina” with the fear fully intact.  The words and situations are so painfully generic that the movie feels like a two hour episode recap from the beginning of a cable drama.

Granted, when you adapt a thousand page mammoth of a novel, a certain amount of generalizing has to be done.  Entire subplots and characters must get excised to get it down to digestible length.  But this was never a problem for the “Harry Potter” series, nor did it hamper the incredibly dense “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  I know those fantasy works are an entirely different beast.  Just had to bring up that the “Anna Karenina” highlight reel was entirely avoidable.

Although, this nondescript dialogue could make the movie for you.  Because so little is discerned from the words being spoken, much is left to be filled in by the actors.  Chances are you want an incredible Keira Knightley performance like in “Pride and Prejudice,” and you’ll get one (albeit slightly more subdued).

And if you aren’t really wowed by the plot, your eyes can easily wander to the costume and set design cornucopia.  There’s a reason these films are called costume dramas – when the drama disappoints, you can always fall back on the threads to provide some meager sense of a fulfilling time at the movies.  C



One response

16 01 2013
Anna Karenina Review: Highly Stylized Soap | Rorschach Reviews

[…] Marshall and the Movies: 2/4 […]

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