Anna Karenina (review)

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Anna Karenina green light Keira Knightley

I’m “biast” (pro): love Joe Wright and Keira Knightley’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

How do you retell a classic tale that we have been regaled with more than a dozen times in the history of cinema and television and keep it fresh and exciting… particularly when that tale turns on notions of propriety that are so outdated as to be nearly alien to us today?

Like this. Just like this. We may be visiting the rarified realm of late-19th-century Russian aristocrats in Anna Karenina, we may be tourists gawking at a strange kingdom with rigid rules for respectability that are transgressed only with the swiftest and surest of repercussions, but via one simple, brilliant conceit, we understand the artifice of it — and the necessity of the artifice of it — in an instant. Because director Joe Wright (Hanna, The Soloist) and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) — working, of course, from Leo Tolstoy’s novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — present much of the action on an approximation of a theatrical stage. Oh no, this is not a movie that pretends to be filming a stage play: it is a film about a honking big audacious visual metaphor for following social rules as akin to performing in a theatrical show in which everyone has a specific part to play, and in which any deviation or improvisation ruins the show for everyone else.

And so we meet, for instance, jolly noble civil servant Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen [The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood], who is thoroughly hilarious here) as he shifts from his daytime office to his nighttime club with the help of “stagehands” who roll out desks and roll in dining tables. We see royal balls as showstopping dance numbers. Characters make quite literal entrances onto this stage, as when handsome young cavalry officer Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy) arrives at one of those balls and makes an instant impact on Oblonsky’s sister, Princess Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Never Let Me Go)… who is, alas for them, already married to government official Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law: 360, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). Characters change costumes as they walk from set to set, sometimes past rolling flats of scenery. As Anna’s inevitable affair with Vronsky has her ostracized from “proper” society, we often see her looking down on the “scenes” others are “performing” from the stage “rigging” above.

It’s a startling sort of fakery, and, ironically, a uniquely cinematic one. When we watch an actual stage play, we see past the facade of the presentation, but here, the very fakery we unconsciously forgive on the boards is itself front and center on the screen — it’s the whole point, and it’s not ignorable. There is no pretense that Wright is giving us a realistic depiction of late-19th-century Russia, and in the process, he isn’t merely creating a look that’s highly stylized, and he isn’t merely crafting a metaphor about the social structures under which we all live our lives, even today: he’s underscoring the artificiality of cinema itself. That will be uncomfortable to some — indeed, there were a handful of walkouts at the screening I attended as soon as it became clear that this was not to be a standard costume drama. But “standard costume drama” is precisely what Anna Karenina does not need yet again.

This would be a hugely daring film from anyone, but it’s especially so coming from the team of Wright and Knightley, whose marvelous Pride & Prejudice broke free from the shackles of costume drama by immersing us in grounded, human earthiness. They’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction here, with the overarching metaphor, by its very nature, detracting from the feeling. This Anna Karenina isn’t as wholly emotionally involving as another version of this story might be: Knightley and Taylor-Johnson are supremely passionate, and eventually their Anna and Alexei reach a place where even they are overcome by an ardor that is far off the script they thought they were playing to. The only context for their passion is, by very conscious design, a world in which it is not supposed to exist. The stifling of that passion is so complete that it extends out to us in the audience. It makes for an intriguing cinematic experience, but a confounding one, too.

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Tony Richards
Tony Richards
Wed, Sep 12, 2012 4:53pm

One of the things I took away from the book was the devastating impact an affair has on everyone involved.  It wasn’t that I found the effects surprising, but I hadn’t thought about the full ramifications for the husband, wife, children, etc before.

Wed, Sep 12, 2012 4:56pm

Well I’m looking forward to it. Likely, those who enjoyed Moulin Rouge will like Wright’s Anna. Meanwhile, I’ll be putting my fingers in my ears to shut out the moans of those friends who are STILL cranky that Wright’s P & P wasn’t “proper” Austin & think he’ll massacre Anna Karenina.

Matt Clayton
reply to  Nina
Wed, Sep 12, 2012 8:41pm

I honestly don’t see why your friends dismissed Wright’s P&P as “proper” Austen. It felt more realistic and earthy than the prim 1995 miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

reply to  Matt Clayton
Fri, Sep 14, 2012 1:25pm

To be honest, I’d imagine that’s partly why; Austen is many things, but many people wouldn’t typically consider ‘realistic and earthy’ to be two of them. She doesn’t exactly dwell on the grit, after all.

I really enjoyed Wright’s P&P, don’t get me wrong, but just saying; plenty of people prefer the fantasy.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  ScottyEnn
Sat, Sep 22, 2012 5:23pm

You think Austen isn’t realistic? Why not?

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Sep 22, 2012 5:44pm

To be fair, I didn’t say I myself thought she was unrealistic — if I’m honest I don’t have enough knowledge of the period to accurately determine that — but there do seem to be a lot of people who do. I was playing Devil’s Advocate a bit there.

reply to  ScottyEnn
Mon, Sep 24, 2012 1:30pm

Austen is neither gritty nor realistic in the sense that she deals with a particularly rareified & genteel segment of society and does not allow the outside world to intrude. In fact, aside from Northanger Abbey (where there is a reference to the Transatlantic Slave Trade), I can’t recall any attempt to engage with the world beyond her contrived ‘bubble’. Is that perhaps what you mean ‘ScottyEnn’?

What cannot be doubted, however, is that Austen is just one of many women writing of and during the Regency Period. Her writing is neither innovative nor startling in its freshness. She is mediocre and is distinguished from her contemporaries only by the ease with which her copy is sold for popular consumption.

reply to  Cjbriggs88
Mon, Sep 24, 2012 2:04pm

That’s pretty much it, yes; as I say, I don’t know enough about the period to fully comment, but Austen does seem to keep the griminess at bay, where Wright’s adaptation introduces a fair bit of it. I think a lot of people do tend to enjoy the fantasy of that genteel society; it might not be a realistic depiction of the era, but it seems to be an accurate depiction of Austen’s depiction, so to speak.

Although I personally wouldn’t go so far as to say her writing was mediocre — in fact, I was quite surprised at how easy and enjoyable she could be to read when I first read P&P. It might explain why her work is easily solid to contemporary readers; it reads in a fashion a contemporary reader would be quite comfortable with (as opposed to the stereotypical view, fair or otherwise, of literature of the period as being quite stodgy and verbose). Although I don’t have a lot of experience with her contemporaries either, female or otherwise, so my comparison there is also worth about what you’re paying for it, really (always open to suggestions, though).

Wed, Sep 12, 2012 7:07pm

Wow. I had ZERO plans to see this; but, now, just even learning that Stoppard did the screenplay, aside from your review, I will put it on the must-see-in-the-theater list.

Tangent: I strongly disagree with the business in the opening of the novel about ‘all happy families are alike’. I disagreed so much that I wrote one short essay skewering that conceit in high school for the class we read it in and then dragged my irritation out again years later  (when in engineering school in my late 20’s, and needing 3 credits of humanities, I talked my way into a graduate seminar on Milton because I refused to be bored by another survey course which is all the engineering advisors pushed us into) when writing a paper about his companion poems Il Penseroso & L’Allegro. My position is that happiness comes in a startling array of combinations and that melancholy actually has a dreary sameness to all of its manifestations — regardless of how and why the melancholia appeared.

Tonio Kruger
reply to  LaSargenta
Sat, Sep 15, 2012 8:21pm

For what it’s worth, I’ve read writers who agree with you, LaSargenta. Unfortunately, few of them are as famous as Tolstoy. Plus that quote is one of those sentiments that sounds really smart–until you really, really think about it.  Or have more life experience than the average college student…

Thu, Sep 13, 2012 11:35am

Oh good, he did carry through on the whole “staginess” thing that was promised by the trailer. When a story has been made into film this often (the 1935 Garbo/March is probably the canonical version), it really doesn’t need another straight retelling.

Tonio Kruger
Sat, Sep 15, 2012 8:23pm

I don’t know. The movie Tristam Shandy–which took a similar stagy approach–did not exactly make me enthusiastic about the idea of seeing more movies done in similar fashion.

I guess I’ll have to wait to see this on DVD.

Roy Jason
Roy Jason
Thu, Jul 05, 2018 8:33am

Yesterday I watched this movie using boxxy software adding my language of subtitles. For me, it was very interesting, since I like to read classics and watch all screenings with pleasure. But! This time I was left with an ambiguous impression.