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Anna Karenina Review

By Jim Dooley


For those of you keeping track, the story of "Anna Karenina" has nine principals: Anna, (Keira Knightley) is married to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law), a detached husband and public servant in St. Petersburg. Anna’s philandering brother, Stiva Oblonski (Matthew MacFadyen), entreats Anna to Moscow to help save his marriage to Dolly (Kelly MacDonald). Stiva has introduced his friend Levin (Domahnall Gleeson), an idealist from the country, to his daughter, Kitty. Levin awkwardly proposes to Kitty who rejects him. Dejected, Levin seeks out his older brother Nikoli (David WIlmot), a socialist and alcoholic hiding in Moscow’s slums. He finds Nikoli has taken a prostitute, Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), as his common law wife. After leaving cash for his strapped brother, he returns to their country home. Kitty is excited to have her aunt Anna in Moscow and begs her to join the family at a ball, which also serves as Kitty’s coming out. Kitty is in love with Count Alexi Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young cavalry officer. At the ball, Kitty and all assembled see the passion between Vronsky and Anna on the dance floor. Vronsky cruelly rejects Kitty and pursues Anna back to St. Petersburg.

The initial set-up takes roughly 20 minutes. Over the remaining 110, Vronsky and Anna will have a passionate but tragic affair; Dolly will stand by Stiva, as he continues to roam; Levin and Kitty will marry and Levin will witness his wife’s Christian love as she washes Nikoli’s feet and extends kindness to the pariah, Masha.

But what makes the film interesting is how it uses theatrical, not cinematic, tropes, to propel the action and inscribe love themes. The scenes in the Karenina household often take place on formal stages: their son’s sleigh bed is always framed on a stage, where Anna plays at being the good mother. Alexi K’s realization that he is losing his wife to Alexi V ends with Jude Law in an armchair down stage, in front of gas footlights that cut to black.

Moscow, by contrast, is most often, literally, "staged." Levin’s proposal to Kitty and her subsequent wooing by Count Vronsky take place on a busy stage, which Levin exits into the Catwalk, qua poor quarters of Moscow, to find Nikolai and Masha. Other scenes start in a natural setting, but switch to a stage when cutting to another room or jumping from a medium to a long shot. Wright also uses modern choreography to represent sex; extras as chorus girls to move the plot along; dramatic reveals like throwing open a curtain in a claustrophobic bedchamber to cut to a carriage interior; and spot-lighting Anna or freezing the actors around her to highlight determinant events and intense emotion.

The worlds of St. Petersburg and Moscow, by contrast, are all surfaces and words. Anna's love is passionate, but in a world of surfaces and a currency of words, she puts her love on display, like a teenager on Facebook who isn't discerning enough to only share with friends and not her full network. While this world is public, it does not suffer full disclosure: besides being trapped by Law, which will ruin her if she divorces, the culture repels her for crossing limits and will ruin Vronsky's military career if they run off together. As true as Vronsky may be, Anna is also trapped by her need for Vronsky to avow his love, which by extension from Levin's epiphany, may not be possible to put in words if it is true. Whether their love is authentic or not, Anna cannot reconcile it to the rules of her class, and she cannot change her class.

It takes courage to bring a tome like Anna Karenina to the screen. Director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard choose to focus the story on the question, "what is love?" It’s questionable if all of the techniques are successful at producing pathos on celluloid, as opposed to in a play. The theatrical techniques are inherently adapted to cinema, but many established and effective cinematic tropes are not used. The abrupt cuts and changes between verisimilitude and theatricality compress time for the narrative. The unwavering camera eye compresses space. By doing so, the film transubstantiates Tolstoy’s novel via theater into allegory.

What did you think?

Movie title Anna Karenina
Release year 2012
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary It takes courage to adapt the Tolstoy epic for the screen. Director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard put in a strong effort.
View all articles by Jim Dooley
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