When it comes time to announce the Academy Award nominations, nothing pads out lighter categories like a new adaptation of a classic work of literature, even if that classic work of literature has been torn asunder by having its artifice laid bare. This is the story of Anna Karenina.
As less of a literati and more of a cinephile, I cannot comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation, nor do I care to provide my opinion of the seminal character in what I understand is often considered one of the best written works of fiction in human history. Much like my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I take Anna Karenina on its own terms, as a separate work that just so happens to be my first exposure to the material.
For the uninitiated, our protagonist is a wealthy socialite married to a Russian statesman 20 years her elder and is ostensibly well known and well liked in the aristocratic circuit of Imperial Russia in 1874. She arrives in Moscow to help her brother with a dispute over infidelity and ends up crossing paths with the dashing Count Vronsky, who is apparently considered quite a catch. After some awkward courtship, Vronsky and Karenina strike up an affair that creates a rift in their social circles with Anna constantly getting the worst of it.
Given what I have read about Tolstoy’s source novel, I can only imagine that the text was greatly truncated, and if my level of sympathy with the characters is any indication, it was truncated to the point of banality, making the story no more appealing to me than any other costumed drama. People love people they’re not supposed to, the social rules of the time are violated, and someone has to pay the price.
Perhaps since I did not read the novel, I didn’t understand the point of the storylines outside of Anna and Vronsky, in fact feeling as though they added nothing to the plot while detracting from any serious examination of elements that make these characters worth knowing. Why does anyone like Vronsky? Because he’s rich and good looking? Why does anyone like Anna? Because she’s rich and good looking? Abiding by the laws of courtship during the story’s setting is not a sufficient explanation for the central romance, and if an assumption is made that I’ve read the novel to fill in the gaps, the adaptation failed before it began.
Worse yet, the staging sucks. It’s terrible. Making Anna Karenina into a stage play in film form only works if the idea can be committed to, but alas, after enduring a few opening overtures at setting up the audience with a stage and seats for the action, we endure several long stretches without a whisper of the artifice until it comes barreling into view to remind us that we’re watching a movie that takes place on a stage. But why? Anyone familiar with how a stage works (re: everybody) knows that the actors stay on the stage and the audience stays in their seats, but we nevertheless travel everywhere with the camera. I caught myself wondering if this staging bit was born out of a desire to save money on the production. Also, for such a serious story, there is quite a bit of comically mounted and balletic physical actions that seem to have more in common with Moulin Rouge than a Russian novel.
I suppose the actors were okay. Keira Knightley didn’t knock my socks off, nor did Aaron ‘Kick-Ass’ Johnson, but I did find Jude Law intriguing as the cuckolded husband. More than anything, though, I felt their parts were underwritten, and I was too distracted by the staging to make any informed suppositions about their motivations.
Oh, but the dresses looked nice.
And that is precisely why this movie is nominated for four Academy Awards. Well, maybe the score was good too, but I don’t remember that either. The cinematography never distracted me, but it certainly wasn’t better than Prometheus, which was nothing if not the best looking movie of the year. But alas, costumes based on old styles always get movies recognized. So there you have it. If you want to see some pretty outfits, watch Anna Karenina. If you don’t care either way, it’s easy enough to find something better to do with your time.
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