Anna Karenina is the worst type of movie, the kind that assumes you’ll side with the central protagonist even when that person has done nothing to deserve it. I can’t say I’ve read the novel by Tolstoy the film is based on, or even that I’ve seen the other numerous adaptations of it, but if this movie sticks as closely to the source material as some are saying it does, I’d say I’m not missing much. The film’s problems don’t come from a technical or performance based perspective; its failures all come from the story.
Keira Knightley plays the titular Anna Karenina, a socialite in the 1800’s who is married to Karenin, played by Jude Law, an aristocrat who has devoted his life to Mother Russia. He loves Anna dearly, but she has become unhappy. After a chance meeting with Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an officer in the Russian military, she sparks an immoral relationship. To have an affair as a married woman is disagreeable in a society that teaches marital stability and proper manners, so she finds herself an outcast. Now aware of the challenges she has to face, she struggles with her feelings, her husband and her status as a 19th century floozy.
The first thing that will strike many viewers of Anna Karenina is its lush production design and inventive visuals. The film is treated like a play, where scene transitions consist not of hard cuts like most other movies, but of the sets literally disappearing and being set up in front of you. Many of the backgrounds are clearly artificial—long hallways are little more than a poorly hidden optical illusion—and the steps the characters walk up and down are usually the ones leading to a stage. Occasionally, it even toys with the musical score, similar to how Mel Brooks did in Blazing Saddles (though in a decidedly more artsy way), taking what would otherwise be non-diegetic and placing it directly onscreen with performers walking by the camera with instrument in hand. Its stylistic techniques are occasionally distracting (watching supposedly high class women walk in the cobweb infested stage rafters in their period gowns is quite jarring), but most work in a way that will surprise many, including a beautiful one-take dance scene between Anna and Vronsky where surrounding participants are frozen in time. These moments will either dazzle you or isolate you, depending on your level of cynicism.
If you’re in the former category and managed to be captivated by the film’s visuals, you’ll most likely be put off by an unlikable central character and a story that attempts to skew viewer feelings in the wrong direction. Anna’s husband, Karenin, at least as presented in this movie, is not a bad person. In fact, he’s entirely selfless, having already devoted his life to his country, and he loves Anna with all his heart. When he initially questions Anna about her infidelity, it’s not because he suspects something and it’s not due to jealousy (jealousy is demeaning to him and insulting to her, after all), but rather because those around her have begun talking about her adulterous ways. He doesn’t rush to judgment and even asks forgiveness should he be incorrect in his questioning. Later, when he finally gets confirmation that Anna has indeed been with another man, he doesn’t strike her or even raise his voice. He calmly sits down and asks what he did to deserve this, as if her actions are somehow his fault.
Defenders of the film will argue that the story is about unconstrained passion, a love that can’t be helped, but there’s no grey area regarding Anna’s promiscuity. She is being unfaithful, yet we’re supposed to side with her, the side that neglects the consequences of her actions on those around her. She doesn’t care that she’ll most likely never see her son again. She doesn’t care that she’s emotionally devastating her husband (even as he tries to protect her from a society that will hate her and her cheating ways). She doesn’t care about anything but herself, or at least not as much.
The conundrum a critic faces here is that Anna Karenina is a technically well-made movie, complete with fantastic costumes, wonderful set design and terrific performances. Its unique approach to storytelling is fascinating and works more often than not, but all of these aspects are placed in a story with a character that is damn near impossible to care about. Those technical aspects are certainly worth noting and make up nearly all of this review’s accompanying score, but when it comes down to it, film is about meaning. It’s about telling a gripping story that we can invest ourselves in. On that basis, Anna Karenina is a miserable failure.
Anna Karenina receives 2/5