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Anna Karenina

Movie Information

The Story: Bold new film version of the Tolstoy novel about the ill-fated love of a married woman falling for a dashing young man. The Lowdown: The most remarkable — certainly the most visually stunning — film of the year, this rethinking of Anna Karenina is a glorious spectacle of theater and film fused into a remarkable experience.
Score:

Genre: Highly Stylized Drama
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Macdonald, Alicia Vikander
Rated: R

At this moment, Joe Wright’s incredible film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina stands a better than even chance of being my pick for the best film of 2012. It is the film I’d been hoping for Joe Wright to make ever since Pride & Prejudice in 2005 — only more so. Wright and writer Tom Stoppard have taken a well-worn classic of literature that has been filmed innumerable times — most famously in 1935 with Greta Garbo — starting back in 1910, and given it a new look, a new approach and, in fact, a new life. The approach is radical — and radical in ways that made it obvious from the onset that the results would be controversial. (I was surprised at the press screening where six out of seven local critics came down very much on the side of Wright’s film, and the seventh at least classed his response as “mixed, leaning positive.”) This is no well-mannered literary adaptation (something I would accuse Wright’s second feature, Atonement, of being to the point of suffocation). This is full-blooded, full-blown — and maybe even a little bit crazy — filmmaking. I’d call it a masterpiece, except that sounds rather stodgy — and this Anna Karenina is never stodgy.

You may have heard or read that the film is presented as if it was taking place on a stage, and while that’s not exactly untrue, it’s deceptive. Most of the film — everything but the agrarian scenes involving the story’s most honorable character, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is usually given short shrift in other film versions — does indeed take place in a theater, but it hardly confines itself to the stage. It constantly bursts its confines to move into every nook and cranny of the theater — even into the space where the audience should be. And while all of it can be described as theatrical, none of it is in the least bit stagy. Wright’s camera is constantly moving through the bustle of the film — and the film is very busy indeed. It captures a forward momentum and a sense of urgency to its tale of its doomed title character quite unlike any version of the story I’ve ever seen. It might almost be a musical, except there are no songs. The film absolutely throbs with life. Stylistically, it’s like something Josef von Sternberg might have made in collaboration with Ken Russell and Baz Luhrmann — assuming, of course, that they didn’t kill each other, which seems pretty likely. Yet, at the same time, it is finally completely its own film. The traces are there, but Wright has made them his own.

What may surprise and even put off some viewers is that Wright’s Anna (Keira Knightley) is not entirely sympathetic or even always likable. There’s a sense that while the film finds her tragic and a product of a decadent society, it — and by extension, Tolstoy — doesn’t entirely approve of her or her rash actions. I’m assuming — the film certainly does — that everyone knows that her affair with the rather candy-box Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) doesn’t end well. But where other versions present her as a divine figure of romance, this Anna Karenina gives us a more wrong-headed “heroine.” In fact, here her usually stiff-backed and almost villainous cuckolded husband, Karenin (a devastating performance of great sadness from Jude Law), may be the more sympathetic of the pair.

However you ultimately feel about the film, I cannot imagine anyone not being completely blown away by its visual splendor and its uncanny procession of cinematically magnificent set-pieces. The ball at which Anna first dances with Vronsky is perhaps the most thrilling piece of cinema I’ve seen in this decade. A second ball — which ends with Anna sealing her fate — is very nearly as good. The horse racing sequence — owing something to the one in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, but taking it to unbelievable heights — is also a stunner. That, however, after three viewings seems to me only the tip of the iceberg in this glorious feast of a movie that is unlike anything else you will see this year. Rated R for some sexuality and violence.

Starts Friday, Jan. 25 at Flatrock Cinema

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

27 thoughts on “Anna Karenina

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    I have no great affection for the book, I can’t very well not see this film after a rave like that.

  2. Xanadon't

    Fantastic!- My very favorite personal sub-category of five-star reviews from you, Ken. The kind where early on I really want to see such and such a movie, but then, for one reason or another, I start to second-guess it. Then the reviews begin to roll on in in a rather mixed/underwhelming fashion. Soon I’ve sorta forgotten the whole prospect and, anyways, “hey, this other movie looks like it might be good”. And just then, BAM! 5 Stars. Hanke-certified.

    Yep, that’s how it went. I’ll be there Monday-ish.

  3. More about the author

    Superb post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Bless you!

  4. Xanadon't

    Oh well.

    In other news, I decided this movie shouldn’t wait until Monday. Which is perfect because that frees me up to possibly see it a second time after the weekend.

  5. Xanadon't

    The ball at which Anna first dances with Vronsky is perhaps the most thrilling piece of cinema I’ve seen in this decade.

    Yep. Beats the pants off the final minutes of Russian Ark.

  6. Ken Hanke

    In other news, I decided this movie shouldn’t wait until Monday. Which is perfect because that frees me up to possibly see it a second time after the weekend.

    Pretty spiffy, ain’t it? In my experience, multiple viewings pays dividends.

  7. Xanadon't

    I’ll take this over last year’s Jane Eyre any day of the week. And I’ll never understand how most people are just the opposite.

    Yes, I really do think catching it again on Monday is the way to go. That is unless you’re ready to vote it down in favor of Killing Them Softly.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Well, I’m not reviewiing Killing Them Softly, but I did see it. I vote for Anna Karenina — substantially.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I will be surprised if something better comes along before the end of the year, but we’ll see.

  10. Mr.Orpheus

    Yes, that was one humdinger of a movie. In fact, upon exiting the Fine Arts, some assuredly frightened bystanders may have heard my rather loud proclamation in which I claimed that “ANNA KARENINA is the best darn film of the current century!” I’m not sure that I would stand by that assertion at this point, but then I’m not entirely certain that I wouldn’t. Either way, it’s a wholly spectacular movie.

  11. Ken Hanke

    Come Xmas Day, this departs The Carolina, but sticks around at 1:20 and 4:20 upstairs at the Fine Arts.

  12. Ken Hanke

    This is coming back — probably for only a week — on Fri., Jan. 25 at 3:30 and 7 p.m. at Flatrock Cinema. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the drive.

  13. Xanadon't

    Okay, just re-watched the Wright/Knightly trilogy over the last few days. You’d think I’d be costume drama-ed out, and yet I want more. Never thought I’d be clamoring for another Scarlet Letter adaptation, but if it means “Quadrilogy”…

    It was fun seeing how Wright’s visual flair has evolved over the course of the three films. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been as comfortable picking a single, wholly favorite film of the year as I am with Karenina.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Goddamit, you’re gonna make me watch Atonement again, aren’t you? (I think a four parter is called a tetralogy — at least Wagner’s Ring cycle is.) But couldn’t we find a nice Dickens novel or something from Evelyn Waugh or J.B. Priestley rather than The Scarlet Letter?

  15. Xanadon't

    There are joys to be gleaned from Atonement, even if it’s the least of the three films and they’re mostly visual pleasures.

    I’d be all for going back to an English novel– it’s just that I struggle to come up with a character that would imply Keira Knightley’s involvement. But then, I don’t have any familiarity with Waugh or Priestley.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I don’t have any familiarity with Waugh or Priestley.

    Oh, that’s a mistake. I suspect you’d find Waugh more to your liking — and they’re certainly easier to find. I’d have to cogiate on it — maybe even re-read some — to think what might suit Knightley. I know the character of Lady Clare Corven in John Galsworthy’s final novel in the “Forsyte Chronicles” (and final novel altogether), One More River, would. (James Whale made a good film of it in 1934 when the novel was new.) Problem is — apart from the fact that you have ro either adapt three books or leave out part of this one — nobody reads Galsworthy anymore. Graham Greene’s Orient Express might work.

    My watching Atonement probably depends entirely on whether there’s a copy in the house.

  17. Xanadon't

    If I ever become a reader again I’ll seek him out.

    My watching Atonement probably depends entirely on whether there’s a copy in the house.

    Well that’s the only one of the three films that I don’t own, so you needn’t worry about me slipping it into your coat pocket when you’re not looking.

    Side note: It appears there’s another Madame Bovary movie in the works.

  18. Ken Hanke

    Well that’s the only one of the three films that I don’t own, so you needn’t worry about me slipping it into your coat pocket when you’re not looking.

    How very Night of the Demon that would be. Actually, I halfway think there’s a screener of it lying around here. The phrase “lying around here” does not narrow it down as much as you might think.

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