The nominations: Cinematography, Costume Design, Original Score, Production Design
The film: Imperial Russia, 1874. Wealthy and universally adored socialite Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife is notable Russian statesman Alexi Karenin (Jude Law), journeys from her home in St. Petersburg to Moscow, leaving behind her young son Serozha and against her husband’s warnings, to help mend her brother Stiva’s (Matthew Macfadyen) marriage after he is caught cheating by his wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald). Meanwhile Stiva encourages his friend Levin, a wealthy landowner, to pursue his sister-in-law Kitty; unfortunately she is interested in the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is only interested in Kitty for her money and status. When Anna arrives in Moscow, she meets Vronsky and the two share a connection; when a man is violently killed at the train station, he gives a generous amount of money to the dead man’s family. After Anna convinces Dolly to take Stiva back, they all attend a ball. Despite a full dance card, Kitty tries to dance with a disinterested Vronsky. He instead dances with Anna and their passion between them is noticed by everyone. Noticing how she has hurt Kitty, Anna leaves immediately to return home, but is stopped on the way to the train station by Vronsky who affirms that he must be where she is no matter what. He follows her to St. Petersburg and begins to follow her at her social functions. One night at a party, Vronsky tells Anna he plans to take a job elsewhere; she asks him to stay. That night, Anna denies to Karenin that there is anything between her and Vronsky. The next day she meets Vronsky at a hotel and they become lovers.
Stiva ventures to see Levin in the country and encourages him to pursue Kitty again as Vronsky now has no interest, but the heartbroken Levin decides to stay and focus on his fields. While Anna and Vronsky are away together at Karenin’s country home, she reveals she is pregnant with his child. Karenin surprises her there and invites her to attend the horse races, as all Russian society will be there. Vronsky enters the race and when his horse falls and he is injured, Anna is the only one to cry out in fear for him, exposing her rumor for truth. On the way home, Anna admits all to Karenin and asks for a divorce – he refuses and has her confined at home instead to avoid humiliation for both of their sakes. Anna knows that a divorce means she will lose her precious Serozha, but is so in love with Vronsky that she is determined to find her way. But as Anna’s belly grows, she sees Vronsky less and less. Meanwhile Levin attends dinner with Stiva and Dolly and sees Kitty again; having grown mature of heart and mind Kitty confesses that she does care for Levin and the two are married. Karenin has made up his mind to divorce his wife, but when Anna goes into premature labor she comes close to death. When she confesses her sins and asks Karenin to forgive her, which he does. Vronsky returns to Moscow and when Anna gets better she confesses to Karenin she still loves only Vronsky and leaves to see him. But when she does she senses his distance and that he may very well have done to her what she has done to her husband.
The odds: Russian literature is such a monumental and treacherous river to navigate when adapted to film, so in that regard I will say that I do respect this movie immensely: it is bold and unique and full of verve, like a dance of light. Having said that, I still find all foundation elements of this film, that is to say its script and the vanity of its director Joe Wright, ultimately lacking. I never personally enjoyed the story of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but my biggest frustration with this particular film version is that Wright completely missed the point of the whole novel. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The dynamics of family and society fall into a subplot limbo and instead Wright elevates the love affair to be the soul of the film. As the average moviegoer would have no real attraction to the true source material, I can’t entirely blame Wright for playing on pop-culture’s morbid fascination with sex scandals and infidelity and turning the sex on full volume. Despite that I think this reimagining makes the story all the more monotonous and wrenching as it lacks the balance of subject that Tolstoy had written. Film critics were enormously divided when this movie came out and it is easy to understand. Subjectively I enjoyed the beauty of the spectacle and appreciated the spirit. Objectively I think its narrative was narrow and its director has a big enough ego after the successes of his other admittedly great films like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement that he’s lost his editing eye. The performances of the cast, Knightley and Law especially, are to be commended but fall into the shadow next to the titanic performances of their fellow actors. It is right that this film only be nominated for its artistic achievements. Knightley looks luxurious and magnetically beautiful in her opulent costumes which may finally get the twice nominated for Wright films costumes Jacqueline Durran an Oscar. The ingenuity of the opening scene, featuring a single long take, with the camera following its characters around a theater is remarkable enough give the movie stake in the Cinematography and Production Design categories. Unfortunately the film could be looked over altogether by many voters because they simply didn’t like it – just look at what happened to Brokeback Mountain. But considering the overall objectivity that AMPAS showed last year, who knows what could happen.