12/6/2012 - A married woman finds herself entangled in a passionate affair in Anna Karenina, a big gauzy adaptation of that book you didn’t read in school.
Hey, Cliffs Notes had all the salient points.
Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is married to the older, serious Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), with whom she has one son. Though she dotes on the boy and has never left him (he appears to be, oh, 10-ish), she decides to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow to visit her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden). He is currently in the middle of some marital troubles with wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), who found out about his affair with the governess. Dolly can’t seem to forgive Oblonsky, and Anna arrives to help smooth things over.
Meanwhile, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a princess (princesses are always underfoot in this movie) and a friend of Dolly’s, is all aglow with the expectation that she will soon be engaged to the wealthy and handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). As it happens, Anna met Vronsky at the train station as she arrived in Moscow — she sat near his mother, Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), and struck up a conversation with her. When Anna and Vronsky meet again at the ball where Kitty expects him to propose, more sparks fly between the mismatched pair. Vronsky dances with Anna, causing a scandal and devastating Kitty, who had just turned down the proposal of Konstantin Levin (Domhall Gleeson), a nice guy whose country estate and doofy appearance made him seem deeply unromantic next to the dishy Vronsky.
Anna returns to St. Petersburg enchanted by Vronsky but determined to rebuff his interest in her, even though she’s not particularly delighted with her husband and even though her new social circle, which includes Vronsky’s cousin, Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson), seems to sort of encourage their romance. Of course, if Anna were successful about turning Vronsky down, we wouldn’t be discussing a two-hour movie. So, naturally, we go from society types (including a princess played by Michelle Dockery — hey, there, Lady Mary Crawley) talking about what a moral upstanding girl Anna is to scenes of Anna and Vronsky rolling around on a sun-dappled picnic blanket.
Every adaptation of a piece of literature needs a thing — modern setting! or realism! or Michael Fassbender! The “thing” in Anna Karenina is the set design, which puts many of the scenes of the story on a literal stage — with wings, rafters, etc. We get ornate backdrops that take us from this mansion to that one and set pieces that are slid into place by extras who change from being office workers to cafe servers. The effect made me think of an elaborate production of The Nutcracker — which is I suspect what they were going for. The first ball where Anna (dressed in black tulle) takes Vronsky away from Kitty (dressed in white tulle) was a neat visual riff on Swan Lake. In the first shot of Anna, she is being dressed by a maid while reading a letter in a sequence that — graceful arms move here and float there — also seems to play with the idea of a ballet. In other scenes, extras’ movements are synchronized, and I know I spotted at least one pair of ballet shoes.
Sure, it’s gimmicky, but it brought something to this jumble of princesses, peasants harvesting wheat and overheated romance that made it more than just a corseted chick flick. Or, at least, made it a corseted chick flick with some nifty visuals.
The conceit also works, I think, because the story of Anna Karenina is kind of ridiculous. It is soap operatic but with big Themes that introduce themselves — Happiness Vs. Duty — in ways so clunky it makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a high school English lesson on symbolism. Somehow, adding this kind of theatrical fairy tale quality makes, for example, the hysteria of Anna’s character feel right within the context of what we’re watching.
That the performances are ultimately, you know, fine but not particularly memorable (except for Macfayden as Oblonsky, who seems to be having a ball and gets all the best lines) is actually OK. Anna Karenina is OK — which considering how dusty the source material could feel like a victory. B
Rated R, probably so that high school students will have a harder time seeing the movie instead of reading the book but also because of violence (by which, I assume, they mean The Thing which foreshadows The Other Thing) and for some sexuality. Directed by Joe Wright with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard (from the novel by Leo Tolstoy), Anna Karenina is two hours and nine minutes long and distributed by Focus Features.