Set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.
I read the book almost two years ago (review) and absolutely adored it for all of its complexity and layers and themes. I was excited when I heard that Joe Wright was doing an adaptation because I’ve enjoyed his adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement (review) and how gorgeous the cinematography in his films can be. Contains spoilers ahead!
Anna Karenina is a difficult novel to adapt. It’s over 600 pages long and to adapt it to a 2 hour movie means for certain large chunks and some storylines will be cut. I went into this movie knowing full well this will be the case but I was surprised how the script tried to incorporate the major storylines anyways. The extent of Anna, Karenin & Vronsky’s story was surprisingly intact for the most part, though often times rather brief/cut/whathaveyou; the story touches on but doesn’t spend too much time on certain aspects like why Anna is drawn to Vronsky and that possible thread of personal happiness and love. In fact, the pacing of the narrative was rather well until Anna got sick. From there, events started moving too quickly; you would have to have known the book to know why Anna was spiralling downward the way she was in the last 40 minutes of the movie, why she wanted to go out into St. Petersburg society knowing full well what people thought of her.
Sadly Levin & Kitty’s storyline was reduced but it was still very, very sweet (their discussion with the blocks? So cute), especially when you contrast it with Anna & Vronsky’s story. The same goes for Karenin’s storyline, though I think I understand why his storyline was cut after Anna & Vronsky left for Europe; like Levin’s story (the half of the story that isn’t connected to Kitty), it’s highly internalised and perhaps more difficult to adapt (though Wright had done a wonderful job at handling such material with Atonement). Despite of the condensation of the material, Tom Stoppard did a good job I think in handling the material.
As for the characters themselves:
- Keira Knightley’s Anna is interesting, untouchable and alluring on some level, and I think she did a good job in portraying the different aspects of her character even when the script doesn’t flesh the details out. I watched this movie with my parents and while my mother says that she’s greedy–and to an extent, she is in trying to want every aspect of her life (her son, her position but also Vronsky and that happiness)–I think she is for the most part conflicted between those two halves of her life. The movie briefly touches on it when she got sick (then again, I am also drawing this from having read the book first). However, I wished the movie spent a bit more time fleshing out the other aspects of her character that is not rooted in her relationship with Vronsky. I found her last scene to be very moving; I knew what was going to happen but it still left me rather =o when it did happen on-screen.
- Jude Law was surprisingly wonderful as the serious and moral Karenin. His ability to show his sadness through his eyes, especially after he learns that his wife is having an affair, was just heartbreaking and moving. You really feel that his character is upright and steadfast in every step and move he makes. I think he also did a good job at making his character a sympathetic one; I mean, I was sympathetic to his character in the books too but not to this extent (he also has his faults and also plays a part to the breakdown of his marriage). I wished he had more scenes, he disappears from the scene after Anna & Vronsky left; I think this has to be one of his most wonderful performances–quiet, but it says a lot.
- I’m slightly disappointed that the full extent of Vronsky’s character towards the end of the movie wasn’t shown (it was touched upon here and there but that’s about it). On the one hand it was understandable given the title and focus of the movie is Anna Karenina, but Anna & Vronsky’s relationship was not all roses and hearts; towards the end they started drifting away from each other and Vronsky’s character starts changing (or other aspects of his personality starts emerging the longer he’s with her?), which just added to the tragedy of Anna’s situation and life choices. I haven’t seen the deleted scenes yet from the movie but I heard the bulk of his scenes were cut so maybe it was more fleshed out there. As a side note, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s eyes are gorgeous.
- Domhnall Gleeson was perfect as Levin. There’s something about his expressions that just matches up nicely with Levin’s internal story; we don’t get to see that story flesh out on-screen but his face just seems to tell it all.
- I absolutely adored Matthew MacFadyen’s performance as Oblonsky. Oblonsky is quite a ridiculous character in the book and MacFadyen just makes the character oddly loveable on-screen, bombastic and comedic. I wish he had more scenes with Keira Knightley, the siblings together were always a lot of fun to read about. His last scene was absolutely heartbreaking because you know he was thinking about his sister at that moment.
- This movie was practically a pantheon of British actors so you’d imagine my delight at seeing Michelle Dockery, Ruth Wilson, Kelly MacDonald, Olivia Williams, Holliday Grainger, Emily Watson and Shirley Henderson in this movie too.
The production of the movie was everything I anticipated the movie to be and then some. I love the idea of using a theatre as the setting for the story, the performances really felt like a theatrical performance and not necessarily a movie one. I also love the symbolism that only Levin’s story, for the most part, is not set on the stage, that he is the only authentic person in the story and who does not work through the facade of Society’s rules. Kitty joins him, a symbol of her maturity. Anna & Vronsky also briefly steps out of theatre, displaying their rebellion to Society, as does one other character whom, in a way I’m still trying to figure out. The set of the theatre was absolutely gorgeous, complete with the Russian labels and every single detail. And the costumes–I’m so happy it won an Oscar in that category because the costumes were absolutely stunning. As always, I also adore Dario Marianelli’s score.
Overall, I enjoyed watching Anna Karenina. Despite of the condensation (and in some cases, simplification) of the material and the abrupt cuts (especially towards the end–both of which would have left this movie at a 3 for me), the production is utterly lavish (akin to high society of the late 19th century in Russia) and the performances were wonderful (hence why I rated it a 4). I think it’s best having read the book first before you watch it but if you’re into gorgeous cinematography and production design, you’ll enjoy this movie nonetheless.