Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Set in Imperial Russia in 1875, Anna Karenina tells the story of a love affair that destroys the lives of all involved. The movie adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel of the same name is directed by Joe Wright who uses the vehicle of a stage play within a movie to tell the story. The film is chock full of actresses from the many British period dramas. Anna is played by Kiera Knightley, while Oblonsky, Anna's brother is played by Matthew Macfayden. Other well known faces include Emily Watson (Oranges and Sunshine's Margaret Humphreys), Mechelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey and Erminia Whtye in Cranford), Thomas Howes (William Mason in Downton Abbey) and Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre 2006 version).

Anna is married to Count Alexi Alexandrovich Karenin, a government official, who is twenty years older than her. They have a son, Sergei, whom Anna loves but her marriage to Alexi is an unhappy one. Anna takes the train from her home in St. Petersburg to Moscow to try to help save her brother, Prince Stepan Oblonsky's marriage. Stepan known as Stiva is a womanizer and has been caught in an affair with the family's governess. His wife Darya known as Dolly, is expecting another child and wishes to divorce him. When Anna arrives the household is in chaos but she urges Dolly to forgive her brother. It is a foreshadowing of her own situation soon to come.

While taking the train to Moscow, Anna has a chance encounter with Countess Vronskya, who is an widow who had many affairs both during and after her marriage - another foreshadowing of the future. Upon leaving the train, Anna meets the Countess'son, Count Alexi Vronsky. Vronsky, a cavalry officer is immediately infatuation to the beautiful, aristocratic Anna. It is at this time that a coal worker on the train meets with a terrible accident and is killed - a foreshadowing of death to come. Anna is horrified but impressed when Vronsky gives money to the stationmaster for his widow.

There is a second storyline that is followed throughout the movie and it is that of Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a shy, but devout man. Levin arrives in Moscow the same time as Anna, with the purpose to propose to Dolly's younger sister, Princess Ekaterina "Kitty" Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya. Levin, unlike many aristocrats prefers living on his country estate and working with his tenants.

Kitty is a debutante and having a successful first "season". She has attracted the attention of the handsome Vronsky. She turns down Levin's shy proposal believing that Vronsky will propose to her. But at a ball, Vronsky shocks everyone by dancing with Anna, humiliating and devastating Kitty.

As Vronsky continues to pursue Anna, she begs him to leave her along but when she returns to her home in St. Petersburg, she finds that she is no longer attracted to her religious and legalistic husband. In St. Petersburg, Anna begins to socialize with Vronsky's cousin, Princess Elizaveta, known as Betsy. This association causes a stir in the St. Petersburg social circles with rumours swirling about Anna. Karenin continues to insist upon his wife's honour but he is concerned about their reputation. Evenutally Karenin is told about the affair by Anna and she also tells him she is pregnant with Vronsky's child.

Karenin decides to divorce Anna but changes his mind when he learns that Anna is dying after giving birth to her daughter. He forgives Anna and Vronsky and tells him that he will look after Anna for the rest of her life. However, Anna cannot live with her husband and decides to elope with Vronsky to Europe.

Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty reconcile and marry. Their marriage is a happy one for the most part, with the couple living a simple life on Levin's country estate. Kitty eventually gives birth to a son.

As time passes, Anna and Vronsky's relationship begins to deteriorate. They argue and Vronsky seems bored and unhappy. They return to Russia but Anna is now shunned in the aristocratic social circles she once frequented while Vronsky is not. Anna become increasingly paranoid and believes that Vronsky is flirting with other women. She commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. Karenin is left to raise Anna's daughter and their son Sergei, as Vronsky is sent away by his mother to fight a war.

For those who have read the book, the movie will be easy to follow. Nevertheless, Joe Wright's adaptation is uniquely brilliant and also easily conveys the three major story lines within the novel, Anna Karenina. The movie opens as though the viewer is watching a play, set in an abandoned theatre. However because this is cinema, beautiful stage sets morph into scenes one after another with doors opening and closing onto new scenes and situations. Some of the initial sets are quite amazing. The lower classes of society are seen below the stage and at other times the actors are looking down upon a scene from the catwalks which provides a unique perspective. However, the use of the stage becomes less apparent as the movie moves along. Of course, Tom Stoppard who wrote the screenplay, is another reason why this worked so well.

Anna and Vronsky dancing.
Wright also uses the actors in ways that suggest themes. For example, when Anna attends the ball in Moscow where she dances with Vronsky many times, all of the dancers perform a balletic choreography. But when Vronsky and Anna do this, it suggests their increasing entanglement with one another. When we first see Princess Kitty, she is part of a set that has beautiful white clouds, suggesting her innocence and virginity, so attractive to the altruistic Levin.

Performances by Jude Law as Alexi Karenin (ironic since Law himself committed adultery with his children's nanny) and Kiera Knightley as Anna Karenina were exceptional. Law was perfect as the stoic, devout, thin-lipped older Karenin, who tries repeatedly to warn his wife about her behaviour and who tries to save her from herself, all the while concealing his intense pain. Kiera Knightley with her regal beauty, effectively portrays Anna's descent into passion and paranoia as she breaks all the rules 19th-century society imposes upon women and reaps all the consequences reserved exclusively for women.

Alicia Vikander's Princess Kitty was another brilliant performance; innocence and naive when she meets the careless Vronsky but more mature and grounded when she returns to Levin. Vikander's expressive performance conveyed Kitty's devastation when she realizes Vronsky is only interested in Anna. Vikander's Kitty manages to convey a sense of innocence and purity, after suffering rejection and betrayal, that is attractive to Levin.

I personally found Aaron Taylor-Johnson's performance as Count Vronsky to be lacking the passion and charisma necessary to entice an aristocratic woman like Anna to abandon all for love. Anna was stepping off a precipice for the chance to find a meaningful love, and Vronsky's passion and pursuit was what motivated her to do so. Somehow I felt this aspect of Vronsky was never really conveyed to the audience by the actor.

Overall this adaptation was quite well done and very visually appealing with the aforementioned beautiful sets, and the deliciously gorgeous costuming. The haunting, lyrical score which was composed by Dario Marianelli whose work is easily recognizable as similar to that Jane Eyre (2011) and Pride and Prejudice (2005).

If you haven't read the book, do so. It was considered by Tolstoy to be his greatest work and his only true novel. This epic novel deals with the themes of love, betrayal, forgiveness, the purpose of life, and of course the place of women in society.

Watch the trailer and see the movie.

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