I was supposed to go see Anna Karenina on Saturday, but it turns out my school life has overflowed even into my weekends. Instead, I found myself with a monday evening rather clear of homework, and I begged my parents to embrace these few hours of freedom and come see the movie with me. So there I sat, the only teenager in a scantly populated movie theater, with a parent on either side of me...neither of which has ever even read a page of Anna Karenina. Still, I was brimming over with excitement. On top of that, I had to repress squeals when I saw the Great Gatsby and Les Miserables previews while waiting for the movie to start.
I wasn't quite sure what I was looking for from this movie, considering Anna Karenina has never been (and probably never will be) one of my favorite novels. I didn't imagine my expectations were too high--I suppose I was just there to see how well it was done. I wanted to see if it would sink or swim. I wanted to see how some of my favorite actors would do their jobs trying a hand at these literary characters. I wanted to know if my predictions were correct.
And I came out with some answers. Beware--spoilers will be bountiful.
As my regular viewers and followers know, I predicted a kind of crash and burn for Keira Knightley in the role of the titular character, Anna Karenina. Not only did I mention that her thin physique is completely unlike that of the character, but I also expressed a weariness of Knightley's position as Joe Wright's predictable go-to girl. Keira didn't crash and burn, though. I wouldn't go far enough to say that she turned in a spectacular performance. It won't get her nominated for the Oscar she's long been in search of. It was simply better than I expected. But, let's not start getting optimistic too soon. The performance was still incredibly lacking in my personal opinion. There were moments when Keira was underacting when she should have been doing more and overacting when she should have been subtle. Overall, she struck me as unbalanced and inconsistent. I'm not completely sure whether this opinion rises from her actual performance or from my general dislike of Anna Karenina's character to begin with. I can only end by saying that I've seen other adaptations of Anna Karenina, and Keira did nothing more or less than the actresses before her have done. And it was simply wrong to cast her after she's already played Elizabeth Bennet and Cecilia Tallis under Joe Wright's direction. Now the wow factor is starting to wear off and it seems as though Wright is taking a good thing too far.
Jude Law as Alexei was flawless. For the first time, I was actually able to view Karenin as a sympathetic figure who only wants to prevent Anna from destroying herself and making others miserable. In this adaptation, Law sells Alexei as a more relatable character. There's nothing truly wrong with his marriage. Grant it, there are moments when he's a little demanding, and he does have to use the 19th century equivalent of Viagra before he goes to bed every night (I'm not kidding, he keeps it in a box), but he strikes the audience as a concerned and dutiful husband nonetheless. That's much more sympathetic than the heartless, domineering, and blatantly chauvinistic Alexei other movies have portrayed. I felt Alexei's heartbreak and got to understand the character more through Law's performance--Karenin has built a comfortable life around his career and family, and all of a sudden he is blindsided by his wife's infidelity when he feels like he has never asked much of her.
Vronsky is portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. There's not much to say about that. Vronsky is a "rich, good-looking calvary officer with nothing better to do than make love to every woman he sees." It wasn't hard for Taylor-Johnson to nail that. His chemistry with Knightley is good though. He pales in comparison to the rest of the fine portrayals in the film.
By far, the person who really stole the spotlight was Domhnall Gleeson as Levin. The shameful thing is the audience doesn't see him nearly enough considering that Levin's story occupies half of the novel. Still, whenever Gleeson is on the screen, he is amazing. His portrayal of the character infuses life into the film and creates the perfect contrast to Vronsky. It's a wonder to me how Domhnall does all of this with so little time to work with. I would have loved to see more of him, because he's a game changer and the kind of actor that illuminates the character. I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs about it, but you could only really know what I'm saying if you go see the movie.
As for the more minor characters....Stiva is played by Matthew McFadyen, who injects just the right amount of comic relief into the morbid story and accomplishes his purpose. Kelly MacDonald is his wife, Dolly, and has a relatively minor part. Alicia Vikander is the pretty and ever-so-sweet Princess Kitty. One more observation--I just found it slightly awkward that Keira and Matthew played passionate lovers as Lizzy and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and then turned around to play a brother-sister relationship in this movie. It was messing with my mind a little bit, which is why I am starting to stand in adamant opposition of using the same actors over and over in literary adaptations. *cough cough* Just a little note for Joe Wright in case he's reading.
Screenplay: I enjoyed it. At first, I must admit that I was wary of the idea of having the entire movie take place on a stage. I understand that it's representative of the superficiality of imperial Russian society, but at times it's a little too literal for my liking. It took a little getting used to, but I settled in soon enough and as the film progressed I actually found myself appreciating the originality. As for the faithfulness of the dialogue, I truly cannot say. I haven't read the book in so long. From what I remember, however, all the main events are included. I give kudos to the screenwriter. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to piece a screenplay together from a 700 page book and still manage to be so inventive. That's really what it is...inventive.
Cinematography: I think one of the primary reasons why the screenplay and setting works as well as it does is because the cinematography was done extremely well. Even though the entire movie basically takes place in an opera house, the camera captures everything as if it were as natural as walking through the streets of Russia. The shift from scene to scene in different parts of the theater is intriguing to the eye, and yet natural enough that I didn't feel overwhelmed or confused.
Soundtrack: One track sounded strikingly similar to a piece in the 2011 Jane Eyre. Of course, I wasn't surprised to see Dario Marianelli's name on the end credits. I'll admit, the soundtrack isn't nearly as stunning as his work on previous movies, but Anna Karenina isn't really made for an all-star soundtrack. What Dario Marianelli needed to achieve was subtlety in the face of such a visually unique film.
Costumes: Beautiful. I'm not quite sure if they match up perfectly with the time period, but they're certainly enjoyable to look at. I'm sure there's an Oscar coming for the designer (who also collaborated with Wright on Atonement and Pride and Prejudice). It is obvious that a lot of thought and detail was put into the costume design, and it made the movie even more visually aesthetic. Everything is so sensual.
It is interesting. I doubt you're going to exit feeling ecstatic or blown away, but rather intrigued. This film gives one a lot to think about, and more than anything, it makes you want to go back to the book and read with a little more vigor. I'm sincerely pondering watching it again just to see exactly what I think of it. It's strange that the movie is called Anna Karenina and yet I find myself less captured by Keira Knightley's portrayal and Anna's struggle and more by Levin's relationship and the technical aspects of the movie. But then again, that's exactly how I felt about the book. Oh well. I definitely recommend you try it for yourself. And, of course, tell me what you think.
P.S I miss you guys. It feels good to get back to lit loving. Oh, and it is a miracle that the makeup artists made Jude Law look unattractive. Just to remind you how much of a god he actually is. How is it possible that he is so beautiful?