Release Date: September 7th, 2012
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Kelly MacDonald, Matthey Macfayden, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
The tagline for this latest film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina promises “an epic story of love”, something I’m lead to believe the original novel holds up to. Unfortunately, the film does not. There are elements of a good epic within the film but the project overall suffers in its storytelling which manages to make the film feel a lot longer than its 129 minutes.
Arguably, the visuals are the strongest part of Anna Karenina. The costuming was stunning, easily conveying the Russian backdrop and the high society in which the film takes place. More than once I found myself entranced by a hat or gown. The colour pallet remained varied throughout while Anna’s own wardrobe seemed to echo her feelings or spirit as the film went on.
The same could be said for the jewellery. Almost the entire time Knightley was wearing these earrings, I was captivated by their design: so intricate and playful. When making a period film, it’s hard to get it right without attention to detail in the costuming but Anna Karenina manages to pass this test well for the setting while also bonding with with the physical sets.
As paralleled in the above screenshot of Knightley’s crinoline cage, the bare bones of the setting is often on show and used to great effect. Some scenes have a character walk “off stage” and begin to wander around the rigging as part of the narrative. This allows for a full stage to be used while clearly defining differing settings. One such scene shows Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) leave a soiree on centre stage, climb the ladder to walk above the stage where the rigging has been transformed into the darker streets of Moscow, allowing Levin a tentative and pained look down at the set he left through the rafters. In this, the trailer sets up the expectations of the film brilliantly as the dancing and spotlights maintain a strong focus in the films tie-in with the stage. The flow of movement is a highlight, especially in the opening scenes, as it allows the set to transform behind and around the actors. One particular pan around near the beginning to suggest busy street movements remains a strong point in my memory.
Of course, to only use the the confines of a theatre in film of this magnitude would be limiting so often the backdrop will open out to reveal the outside, or as in the impressive train station set for Moscow where the backdrop is the only “stage” element within the set. However, I wish that perhaps this stylistic choice had been played further or with a continued intensity as the narrative suffers a definite drop in the middle to latter half which perhaps a jolt of interesting design might have brought to life. Particularly, I would have liked more of a link with the rural shots as only the final scene did this.
Despite all of the good things I have to say, I don’t feel that it was a very good film over all. It feels about 20-30 minutes too long and while I recognise the struggle for a feature length to cut down a long narrative into a film, there’s a problem when it all becomes a little insufferable. In the later scenes where Anna would continue to moan about not having died yet, I was beginning to share the sentiment. The problem is that the characters are so unlikeable and I’m saying that as one of the few people I know who doesn’t hate Keira Knightley just for having a face. Perhaps it’s a personal problem as I’ve grown bored of the tired infidelity horse as well as the seriously-undesireable stalking lover character which I refuse to let become a trope. The source material is the only reason I can forgive the characterisation. Tolstoy was probably one of the first.
There’s also the possibility that the visual design of the film which I did like detaches the viewer from connecting to any of the characters. The design has great potentials but perhaps in a small production.
There are so many adaptations and re-imaginings of this literary gem. For all the beauty of the costuming, the vision of the setting, and the wonderful score which also proved powerful through most of the film, Anna Karenina fails to deliver a truly epic tale in spite of its bold intentions. The redeeming elements of the film hold it together moderately well for perhaps an hour, maybe an hour and half but better storytelling and delivery from the actors is needed to gain a higher standard and rating.
In short, Anna Karenina spends too long a time with insufferable characters. But it is very pretty.