Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina' a Pleasant Surprise
Director Joe Wright takes a classic novel by Tolstoy and enchants it to fill the needs of today's audience.
I was an Anna Karenina virgin.
I walked into the theater knowing two things: One, the film was based on a classic novel by Leo Tolstoy. And two, the book was over 800 pages long and took place in 19th century Russia. I dreaded the film, I dreaded my decision to write a review on it, and I thought I was about to watch something straight out of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre.
I was mistaken on all accounts.
For other Karenina virgins like myself, the main story revolves around a young, aristocratic woman named Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) who falls in love and begins an affair with the eligible Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Once pregnant with his child, she comes clean to her husband (Jude Law) and leaves with Vronsky, though shunned upon in Russia. A secondary plot, more prevalent in Tolstoy’s novel, tells the story of Levin (David Wilmot), a landowner looking to marry Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the sister of Anna’s sister-in-law. This plot introduces characters seen in both Levin’s and Anna’s lives and it provides relief from the main plot.
As I declared earlier, I was completely off-target in thinking the film would be a bore. It subtly emulates a play, with transitions involving set and background changes. Scenes shift so rapidly that it creates a pace making boredom impossible. After 10 minutes of watching the film, I feared not being able to follow the progression of scenes due to the speed, but that never became an issue. The cinematography behind the transitions is clever and kept me in anticipation of the next. For example, in one scene Anna’s son would be playing with his toy train. The camera then zoomed in on the train and there was Anna traveling in it, headed to Moscow. It is definitely a movie you do not want to get up and use the bathroom during because you could easily miss two to three key scenes.
Another essential element to any film is the cast and I have one word to describe the casting choices of Anna Karenina: perfect. Knightley’s portrayal of a selfish, yet loving woman torn between good and bad is exquisite. Her paranoia around Vronsky’s faithfulness at the end is acted out superbly through erratic dialogue and twitchy, bodily expressions. And the flirtatious nature between Karenina and Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson) prior to them becoming involved is so believable that I was able to put myself in her shoes. At age 22, Taylor-Johnson personifies innocence and youth as Vronsky. Once quite the Casanova, the affair quickly turns his life upside-down. We watch him go from a care-free existence to an adult world of trials and tribulations, which Taylor-Johnson depicts wonderfully. Jude Law’s character, Alexei Karenin, remains reserved and patient throughout the entire ordeal, never acting out of anger or mistreating Anna. Law captures that essence to a tee and does not give the audience any reason to feel badly for him.
It is not only the beautiful cast that kept my eyes locked on the film, but also the sets and costumes. Director Joe Wright shot most of the film on a single soundstage in a theatre outside of London. Though the sets are constantly changing, there is never anything too elaborate or unbelievable. The characters and storyline are always the main focus; the scenery second. However, it caught my eye, especially the ornate furniture and stunning dresses the women wear.
Costume designer Jacqueline Durran mixed 1950s couture with Russian aristocracy, combining architectural elements with elegance. The dresses accentuate the actresses figures while covering them up so as not to make them look trashy or lose their purity.
Anna Karenina entertains from beginning to end. I stopped dreading the film from the opening scene. It is a modern approach to a classic novel, set in the appropriate era. The fast-paced transitions and exchange between plot lines ensure that there is never a dull moment in the film. The ending hit me like a lightning bolt and I wanted more. Maybe it is time for me to finally read an 864-page book that is written by someone other than J.K. Rowling.