Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Movie Review: 'Anna Karenina' an intersting book-to-film/stage adaptation

Image courtesy of Focus Features
Disclaimer: I've never read 'Anna Karenina,' seen a previous film adaptation or had previous knowledge about the story before seeing the film.

Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is known for being one of, if not the best, novels of all time. Its story of the titular socialite with Count Vronsky is known the world over, and has been adapted into as many films as Austen's "Pride & Prejudice." But never has a production been put together in the way Joe Wright has tackled the story.

Teaming with his "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" leading lady Keira Knightley for yet another literary adaptation, "Anna" incorporates a theater setting for some of the scenes in his film. Opening up with a curtain rising on Prince Stephan (Knightley's "P&P" co-star, Matthew Macfayden) getting ready for his day on stage, the sets are re-arranged and quickly manipulated to play host to an angelic heaven, a train station, and even a rundown alley up in the rafters.

A very interesting approach for an epic love story like this, it was a bold and memorable take nonetheless. As Vronsky's (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) eyes pierce Anna's from across the stage, it's like watching two dancers at opposite ends of the stage slowly come together for a duet. As their attraction draws them closer together she realizes that she is not in love with her husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), and leaves him for Vronsky.

Because this was my first encounter with the story, I can't say what parts of the story should have been included, or let go. At just over two hours in running time, the movie keeps a solid focus on Anna and Vronsky while dipping into the side relationships of Stephan and Dollie, and Levin and Kitty. The film was as good at telling a condensed version of a literary love staple just as Wright's "P&P" was.

The ultimate question with this film's production must have been, "Do we focus on the story or the look of the film?" If I had to guess, story and substance was substituted to get that classic 1874 Russian look for the film. The costumes and production design are top quality, extremely lush and beautiful, with certain Oscar nominations to come for it. The "stage/theater" scenes, though beautiful, were smothering at times, making me wish it could be even more lavish with more robust sets. David Lean's 1965 adaptation of "Doctor Zhivago" and the 1968 adaptation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" were both big epics that didn't skip on the scenery. Wright should have seen those movies before embarking on this project.

Knightley as Anna won't go down in history as one of the best interpretations of the character, but it's a competent enough performance. She's youthful and glowing in the beginning, then an unraveling mess of emotions by the end. An Oscar nominee for "P&P," there's no saying which literary adaptive performance is better, they're both so different. I must say that I'm tired of her "I'm happy in this scene but I've still got a sourpuss face" shtick she does so often.

The best performance, for me, is Jude Law as Alexei. Quiet and subdued, he is the perfect contrast to Knightley's glowing Anna. Even when she admits to betraying him, Law has so much restrained power as Alexei that it's surprising how he didn't blow up. He had his suspicions, but choices to act rationally and level-headed. Johnson's Vronsky was competent and not memorable or interesting.

Overall production of the film makes for wonderful eye candy over this truly inventive yet bland re-telling. Die hard fans may not like "Anna Karenina," but it's something to experience.

Rating: C

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