Anna Karenina is Flashy Novelty that Evades any Modern Significance

Anna Karenina Theatrical Poster

Anna Karenina Theatrical Poster

TitleAnna Karenina
Genre(s)Drama
Director(s)Joe Wright
Release Year: 2012
IMDB7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes62%

Walking out of this film, I wrote a single line at the end of my notes for my review: “I just don’t care.” It wasn’t meant to be an insult or anything to the film, but rather to raise an important question as to whether I should have cared about Anna Karenina’s plight. Not even that though, does a film not have a responsibility to make the audience care about what’s happening on screen? From what I understand, Anna Karenina is very faithful to the book, and now the problem lies in whether I even want to read the book after this. Drab may be the perfect word for this movie, once the novelty of its stylistic choices wears off, and that’s a problem when a film has to rely on aesthetics to make their movie interesting. Going from inventive and exhilarating storytelling to the typical period piece style of film is the kind of degradation that agitates viewers like me who hate to see ambition get squandered for no reason.

Perhaps it’s not for no reason though, as the film’s story is more and more depressing when the film goes back to the typical conventions of a period piece. It’s the upbeat and cheerful scenes that get the luxury of being coated in one of the best cinematic tricks of the year. Instead of conventional on-location shooting, Joe Wright has decided to stage many scenes in a playhouse which leads to beautiful transitions as one set turns into another right before the audience’s eyes. It’s unconventional film-making like this that makes Anna Karenina worth watching. For the first half of the film, the novelty never wore off for me, and I was constantly amazed by the visuals, even just the regular cinematography in the last half. As with almost any period piece of this sort, I’m impressed by the cast, the visuals, the score, and every other technical aspect.

As Karenin, Anna's husband, Jude Law absolutely steals the show. Wish there was more of him in this.

As Karenin, Anna’s husband, Jude Law absolutely steals the show. Wish there was more of him in this.

My problem with this movie is that there’s no character to root for, not even to empathize with. I understand that I’m probably not supposed to like any of the main characters, but what is the point of the movie if I can’t follow their motivations? More specifically Anna herself, who is bland and generic in the most painful way. How am I supposed to get any impact out of a film when I’m not even emotionally attached to anything I’m seeing? That’s why Anna Karenina is a disappointing film. It has so many unique elements to its presentation, but when it comes to the actual story or characters, I felt like they were very hollow. Keira Knightley is great as Anna, Jude Law stands out as her husband, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is above average as Count Vronsky. The supporting cast is filled with familiar faces from Michelle Dockery, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Olivia Williams, Alicia Vikander, and Emily Watson, all of whom are great in their respective roles. In fact, it was nice to see Gleeson and Vikander get pretty big roles as the parallel relationship to what is happening between Knightley, Law, and Taylor-Johnson’s characters. Ultimately, however, I couldn’t pull any significance out of Gleeson and Vikander’s storyline, and I was just as agitated with it because of the characters and how they behave.

This is a movie that doesn’t really seem to be saying anything of importance now, but is based on a book that was saying something important for the time it was released. Why stories like this are constantly retold is merely to give a modern retelling of something that occurred in the past, to show how things used to be. It’s my main complaint against period pieces like this, because they don’t do anything fresh, they merely attempt to recreate history in an appealing manner. Anna Karenina is very much a modern retelling of the story set in 1874, but it just becomes another film that will only appeal to those already in love with historical films.

Once Vronsky shows up, it's clear Taylor-Johnson was not the best casting choice. Not the worst, but not the best.

Once Vronsky shows up, it’s clear Taylor-Johnson was not the best casting choice. Not the worst, but not the best.

I do quickly want to mention that there are some scenes in this film that really stand out, such as when Anna leaves her husband, dresses down from her royal garments, and then arrives to Vronsky wearing very simple clothes. It’s a beautiful statement of leaving the prim and proper royal world she is married to, for the sinful pleasures of the lower-class as by leaving her husband she is sacrificing any inkling of being welcomed into those higher social circles. Then there’s also the horse racing scene, which contributed a lot of frustration as to why I couldn’t empathize with Anna, but the way it’s shot is marvelous and how it plays out is perfect. But for a scene that is just awful, perhaps one of the worst scenes I’ve seen this year, that would be one involving Gleeson and Vikander’s characters as they use blocks to tell that they love each other. It’s cheesy, long-winded, and in no way entertaining, plus they are characters that I found hard to care about anyway.

Anna Karenina is not a failure of a film, breathing life into a style of film that no one really seems to care to mess with. It’s beautiful in almost every regard, and it has a unique feel to it that no other period piece of this sort has managed to convey. I was swept up in the first hour by its aesthetics, but once they slowed down and got back into the generic stylistic choices that accompany the genre, there’s no love left for the film. The characters are inconsistent, vile, naive, and ultimately devoid of any emotion. Sure, Anna appears tortured in many scenes, but any justification she has for it isn’t getting her any sympathy points. If the story was a little more than a love triangle, or this modern re-telling was a more modern version, sacrificing royalty and peasantry with their modern day parallels, this could have been an exciting film. Instead, it stagnates and falls into comfortable shoes instead of trying to be something remarkable.

Overall: Not Recommended

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