Dir. Joe Wright. U.K. 2012.

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Along with many great writers including Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and Turgenev, Russian author Leo Tosltoy has a reputation for realist fiction, an attention to the mundane, to the experiences of every day life as opposed to a highly stylized or romantic approach. This realist approach is disregarded, however, by director Joe Wright's flamboyant and glitzy re-imagining of Tolstoy's epic novel Anna Karenina. It is the eleventh such version of this novel on film and one that adds little to our understanding or appreciation of this great work.

Contrary to Tolstoy's literary realism, the production is marked by heavily choreographed movements and theatrical accoutrements such as painted background sets and whirling bodies, all played out on a stage in an ornate but decaying theater, a vague metaphor for the growing rottenness of the aristocracy. Although locations are changed through altering the backgrounds, the device serves to reinforce the unreal nature of what we are seeing and distances us from the emotions of the unfolding story.

Set in Russia in the late 1800s, Anna Karenina, portrayed by British actress Keira Knightley, is the wife of Karenin (Jude Law), a rigid and humorless Tsarist government official. As Anna leaves on the night train for Moscow as a result of a crisis in her brother Oblonsky's (Matthew Macfadyen) marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), she meets Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) and her son, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young cavalry officer. The chance meeting of Anna and Vronsky leads to a relationship that threatens her marriage with Karenin and results in her being isolated and ostracized from aristocratic society. Vronsky's movements in Russian society, however, have no such restrictions.

A parallel story, prominent in the novel, but deemphasized in the film, is that of wealthy landowner Levin's (Domhnall Gleeson) pursuit of Dolly's sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). This relationship, grounded in simplicity and mutual support, stands in contrast to the messy liaisons of the upper classes. A highlight of the film is the charming scene in which Levin woos Kitty after her initial rejection by communicating with her through the movement of block letters on a table. While Anna has made mistakes of judgment, she has acted according to her own heart and to her privilege as a woman, but this aspect is underplayed in the film.

Rather, her emotional deterioration is depicted as based mainly on her weaknesses - her inability to handle the rejection of her husband, her doubts about Vronsky's commitment, and her dismay at being shunned by her own social class. While the basic outline of Tolstoy's novel is present, the overriding message is buried beneath a stagy presentation and the wooden performances of painfully miscast actors. Indeed, Anna Karenina is more about infidelity than about the crumbling of the old order, a breakdown that would eventually lead to revolution.

After he returned from the army and witnessed how the military was used to suppress the peasants demands for better conditions, Tolstoy became moved by a sense of social justice and a feeling of disgust at his own connection to the privileged elite, but, even though the aristocrats are depicted as hypocritical and often mean-spirited, very little of this social conscience is seen in the film. As a result, a powerful tragedy becomes passionless and uninvolving, and the breadth and depth of a great literary work of art is reduced to artifice.


Howard Schumann

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