Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

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Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson
Director: Joe Wright
Country: UK | France
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: Anna Karenina opens in North America on November 16th

How does one adapt a literary classic? A more pertinent question, perhaps, is why one would even attempt to in the first place. Undoubtedly a great work of any particular medium exists as such thanks to aspects endemic to that medium alone; the ontology of literature is an indefatigable part of what makes its finest exemplars just that. To bring a work such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—one oft regarded among the finest ever written—to a medium such as cinema, defined in terms so wholly different, is a task steeped in potential folly. What better director, then, to rise to the occasion than Joe Wright, whose prior adaptive successes with Pride & Prejudice and Atonement clearly proclaim him a translator of formidable skill.

…the placement of many scenes on or around a large stage, which lends a grand expressionism to Wright’s storytelling toolbox. Reality is but relative here, the stage’s intermittent usage as a bedroom, race track, snowy plain, and train station contorting the story in a multitude of fascinating directions that allow Wright to do away with the inconvenience of spatial linearity and develop Tolstoy’s reflection beyond the bounds of the page.

Wright’s personal flourishes are everywhere to be found in Anna Karenina, the source’s existing fame as the work of a great author never holding the director back from making the material his own and employing the specifics of his own chosen medium to imbue the story—that of the titular socialite, whose affair with a cavalryman destroys her marriage to an affluent statesman and the concomitant perks of the aristocracy—with what only cinema can bring. His greatest contribution, no doubt the most complex and interesting made, is the placement of many scenes on or around a large stage, which lends a grand expressionism to Wright’s storytelling toolbox. Reality is but relative here, the stage’s intermittent usage as a bedroom, race track, snowy plain, and train station contorting the story in a multitude of fascinating directions that allow Wright to do away with the inconvenience of spatial linearity and develop Tolstoy’s reflection beyond the bounds of the page. There’s heft to Shakespeare’s famous words here: all the world’s indeed a stage, and Wright plays it out in plain sight, at once critiquing the theatricality of bourgeois life and lamenting the grandiose painfulness of human emotion.

A long tracking shot early in the film hoists the characters through no fewer than three locations in one uncut movement, the background shifts occurring almost seamlessly around them a most fitting introduction to the stagey presentation Wright adopts. He excels with lavish set design and abundant extras, his camera tracing the path of individual dancers through crowded fields of dozens, recalling—not least of all in its strange meshing of the real and the more fantastical in the context of Russian history—the striking atmosphere of Russian Ark. Stark and sudden lighting changes are but one of many accomplished contributions of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who excels equally when capturing the rays of a sun kissed wheat field and exploring the minutiae of Keira Knightley’s facial reactions.

He excels with lavish set design and abundant extras, his camera tracing the path of individual dancers through crowded fields of dozens, recalling—not least of all in its strange meshing of the real and the more fantastical in the context of Russian history—the striking atmosphere of Russian Ark.

Marking the third collaboration of Wright and Knightley, Anna Karenina has the leading lady exuding a confident authority, her presence carrying a great deal more clout with her audience than her character does in her society. Jude Law, austere and authoritative though his character might be, has enough avuncular charm to make the pain of betrayal at his wife’s hands seem palpable; that Knightley can make us truly feel for the plight of Karenina, then, is testament to the strength of her performance. The strongest supporting work comes courtesy of Domhnall Gleeson, who excels not only in maintaining with the utmost conviction an accent far removed from his own, but also in making a character of immense pre-ordained wealth endearingly sympathetic. His yearning for a distinct identity, be it found in romantic pursuits or professional, complements and contrasts with Anna’s, the two between them offering a consummate summation of Tsarist Russian aristocracy.

Through all the scale of its presentation, all the epic emotion it encounters along the way, all the grandiosity of the upper-class and the technical boldness of protracted and pronounced camera movements, Anna Karenina is, at its heart, a simple film about the searing passion of love. Happiness is a commodity of immeasurable value; Anna’s true crime is the recognition of that fact. Exercising a wealth of semiotics unique to cinema, the images he constructs as crucial to his storytelling as the material itself, Wright does justice to his source and the big screen both, making Anna Karenina a defiantly cinematic experience, and one of the most efficient and distinguished adaptations in recent memory.

[notification type=”star”]82/100 ~ GREAT. Exercising a wealth of semiotics unique to its medium, Anna Karenina is a defiantly cinematic experience that does justice to its source and the big screen both.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.