December 6, 2012 -- This classic story by Leo Tolstoy has been adapted to film many times, but I'll bet none of these adaptations were as clever and gorgeous-looking as this modern Joe Wright-directed (“Pride and Prejudice”) Tom Stoppard-written (“Shakespeare in Love”) adaptation, which intricately combines theater and cinema. As the story switches abruptly from back stage scenery to wide open spaces, it is as if the makers of this movie are shouting at the viewer “look how clever we are!”
The story, set in Russia in the 1870s, tells of the tragic extra-marital affair between the aristocrat Anna Karenina (played by Keira Knightley of “Never Let Me Go”) and the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Savages”), a military officer. Anna is married to an important government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law of “Sherlock Holmes”). Karenin is a noble man of great intelligence, whose patience and forgiveness are sorely tested by his wife's affair with Vronsky. In one scene, he walks from the set to the stage and sits on a chair in front of the footlights. His wife behind him, Alexei asks what he did to deserve pain she has inflicted upon him.
This love triangle between Anna, her husband and Count Vronsky is explored in depth and from many different angles. Anna and her husband go through many changes as they both try to adapt to the situation, complicated by Anna's two children, one by her husband, the other by Vronsky. Try as they might, there is no way to make these relationships work in the long run and the story ends tragically.
Anna's affair also has an effect on one of her in-laws, Kitty (Alicia Vikander of “A Royal Affair”) who had her heart set on Vronsky before his affair with Anna. Kitty is the younger sister of Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), who is the wife of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), Anna's brother. Oblonsky is my favorite character in this film, a kind of happy-go-lucky libertine who doesn't let much get to him. He is, however, shamelessly unfaithful to his wife. Early on in the story Anna travels to Moscow to persuade Dolly to forgive Oblonsky's unfaithfulness.
Kitty, who is a great beauty, has also attracted the attention of a wealthy landowner, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson of the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” movies). Kitty turns down Levin's proposal flat because she has her heart set on Vronsky. Later, when the two meet again, they spell out their feelings for each other Scrabble-like with wooden alphabet blocks on a table. Just to give you an idea of the full Russian names of these characters from the book, here is Kitty's full name: Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya. Try saying that three times fast.
Even though this story is old, dating back to 1873, it still seems a bit modern. The characters are constantly trying to claw their way past the rigid rules of the society they live in. The pressures of conformity and the intense disapproval of society towards Anna and Vronsky are made apparent in the film. The idea of romantic love is central to the movie and it is explored from many angles. In the end Anna is unable to follow the same advice she once gave to Dolly. Her feelings of jealousy and insecurity finally drag her down.
Some of the great beauties in the history of film have played the role of Anna in the past, including Gretta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Claire Bloom. Keira Knightley is a fine actress, but not a great beauty in the classical sense. It is a little unsettling to see the toothy Knightley paired up with the handsome Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Vronsky) and the lovely Alicia Vikander (Kitty) both of whom are more handsome than Knightley. I don't believe Vronsky would dump Kitty for this Anna, not on the basis of looks anyway.
I liked the mixture of theater and cinema in this film. In one scene, Levin opens a door in Moscow and steps out into an open field in another part of the country. In another scene, numerous office workers stamp documents at the same time in the kind of rhythm one would expect in a musical. In another scene, there is a horse race on a theater stage. In another scene, Anna steps from a back stage area into a train station. Ordinarily, this would be a distraction, and it would take you out of the movie, but it works, perhaps because theater and cinema are very similar experiences. This is a fine adaptation of a great book. It rates a B+.
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