I suppose as good a way as any is to begin by stating that Leo Tolstoy’s iconic novel, Anna Karenina, remains unread by me. And probably always will. It’s just not my thing. And I only mention this as a means of giving context to this review: I am an Anna Karenina novice. Going into the film, I hadn’t the slightest idea what the movie was about. The trailer flexed notions of an infidelity drama set centuries back, directed and starring people who make great films together. That’s all I had going in.
What I can assert after seeing Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is that it is a lively, inventive period piece unlike any film I’ve ever seen. The problem that I’m still trying to wrap my head around is that, given how unique and seemingly energetic it is, why am I left feeling as though it is forgettable and utterly lifeless?
Most all of Anna Karenina was shot on a single sound stage in London. This means no matter the setting – a busy office, a snowy field, a crowded opera, a lavish reception – every scene takes place within the same space. And because Wright so frequently opts for extended, unbroken takes, this means there were dozens (…hundreds?) of people directly off camera changing the sets while the camera was still rolling. Not to mention the actors in frame who had to shift from one setting to another, playing in scenes that are often spaced days apart, all in the same shot. It is a technical triumph that deserves limitless praise, and I was consistently in awe of the skill involved. If this film is ignored for nominations for technical Oscars including Cinematography, Costume Design, Art Direction and more, it would be one of the greatest movie award sins of the year.
I haven’t even described what the film is about, and perhaps that’s because, aside from its monumental technical proficiency, there isn’t much more I can positively say. Wright regular Keira Knightley plays Anna, a 19th century woman who married into Russian nobility when she hitched the kind, faithful Alexei (Jude Law). Presumably disinterested with the wining, dining, dancing, and posturing, her eyes and heart lock on Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and an epic, royal affair takes hold. Once Anna’s infidelity with Vronsky becomes public, her friends renounce her and her husband threatens the most grueling separation possible.
One thing that is evident from the onset, aside from the film’s deliberate staging, is its purposeful playfulness. I suppose, given how much heavy shit goes down in this film, it’s safe to call it a drama, but there’s no denying that it’s a farcical one at that. And perhaps that’s where Anna Karenina led me astray. It’s constantly going for a sardonic, whimsical tone that never fully hits. I would’ve preferred an out-and-out comedy, or a heavy-hitting drama, rather than a film that desperately wants to be both.
Another note of personal criticism: I have no problem admitting when a film completely loses me. Maybe it’s a fault of the movie, maybe I just wasn’t fast enough to pick up on it, either way, sometimes I’m lost, and I like to know why. Where Anna Karenina lost me most was in its dedication to a subplot involving Anna’s brother’s best friend, and the woman he is courting. This romance has nothing whatsoever to do with the Anna/Alexei/ Vronsky love triangle, and, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with anything. I had no idea why the movie spent so much time focusing on this romance. Again, I’m a rookie to Tolstoy’s source novel, but at 129 very long minutes of running time, I simply do not see the value of including a romance that adds nothing.
Wright and Knightley’s previous collaborations include a lively remake of Pride & Prejudice, and the thrilling Atonement. Both of those films are substantially more accomplished than Anna Karenina, but only in story execution. Technically, Anna Karenina is as fine an achievement as I’ve seen this year. Is that enough to make it worthy? You tell me. B-