Sunday, November 18, 2012

Anna Karenina

I just walked out of the theater, where I went to see the 2012 adaptation of "Anna Karenina" directed by Joe Wright.

This adaptation is extremely disappointing. In fact, it is terrible. It boasts beautiful cinematography, gorgeous costumes, and an overly clever, almost gimmicky storytelling device, but its characters lack depth or realism, and the person who draws me in the most is, of all people, Karenin!

To be fair, I am a purist. My mother brought me up with Russian literature from the time that I was a little girl, and I learned to love it, breathe it and find meaning in it. This film version renders one of Tolstoy's greatest works superficial, conventional and cliche. I would hardly find it possible to imagine it thus, except it was.

The greatest problem with this adaptation was the gimmicky story-telling device. The audience sees "Anna Karenina" as a drama performing at a theater, complete with dances and ballets, so there are curtains rising, falling, beginnings of scenes, ends of scenes, a section of the theater that reflects the stage, the wings and so forth. This serves to distance the audience from the feelings and emotions that should be rendered on the screen rather than bringing them closer. It continuously cut into my experience of the film, reminding me again that I am removed from it rather than peeking into the characters' lives as they are lived before me.

The time that this idea worked most advantageously was at the ball with Kitty & Anna. It was almost as though this scene was taken out of 'Swan Lake' with Kitty cast as Odette, Anna as Odile and Vronsky as the prince. The music, the dancing and the choreography worked brilliantly here, and it was one of the few places in the film where I felt compelled to sit up and pay attention. My heart fluttered; I was moved.

But after that, it disintegrates. The scene in which Karenin forgives Vronsky because Anna is on her deathbed is awfully maudlin. There needed to be a bit more gravity, a bit more severity, before that forgiveness came; it seemed almost like an interrupted menage a trois - the only problematic element was the tears. Levin & Kitty's love, at least, seems more authentic.

I think the problem is in the casting. Kiera Knightley, as much as I love her, does not make a believable Anna. She does not have the gravity, the seriousness; whenever she speaks of love, she seems only to be speaking of lust. She seems silly and playful, taken in by a young fop, and while that is one reading of the book, it is not my reading of it. Anna in my reading is deeply unhappy; Karenin is old and ugly and frigid; he does not understand her, and she reaches out to try to preserve her youth, in hope of love. She is not silly; she is a woman of deep feeling, a conflicted woman, and none of that came across.

In fact, I found myself far more captivated by Michelle Dockery's acting, during the few moments that she was onscreen. I think she would have made a much better Anna.

In short, this version is a disappointment; it has no feeling, only sentimentality, and the deep and enduring pain that it should cause the viewer to feel is lost. I felt little; in fact, I sympathized with Karenin. Where is the Anna that came to life in my mind when I read the book? That Anna is lost; she does not exist in this film.


Charlie Hall said...

I just saw it this past weekend. I agree with your review. I found the portrayal of Anna to be completely unsympathetic. Worse, I now have no interest in reading the novel or any other Tolstoy fiction. :(

Any recommendations on a better film version?

BTW have you read any of Tolstoy's non-fiction? He had a rather unusual theology for his time and place.

Anonymous said...

1967 Russian production of Anna Karenina is a much better film version:

Rebecca Klempner said...

Why do you want to feel sympathy for Anna? She's committing adultery! Tolstoy (like Emma Bovary's creator, Flaubert) wants you to see she's being self-centered and self-distructive. She throws away her life for a fantasy. It's only Western pop culture (which romanticizes adultery) that has turned Anna into a glamorous heroine.