An updated, streamlined version of the Tolstoy classic will appeal to a younger demographic while the oldsters will stick to reading the book.
Director Joe Wright teams up with super star Keira Knightley after their hits “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” to take a crack at one of the most oft-told stories of all time. The results are mixed. The story is stripped down to its essentials; men and women make mistakes and the women pay.
Although this is as unjust now as it was a century ago, there is not the time to make the point in a convincing manner. The result is, at best, an introduction to the classic and not the classic itself.
The costumes and sets are not overwhelming, considering the magnificence of the story. The camera work seems to concentrate more on the people and less on the opulence of the time. Making up for that is the creative staging that has the audience back-stage as the ropes are being pulled and the curtains drawn on the unfolding fortunes of the doomed Anna Karenina, her disgraced husband Karenin and the destitute Vronsky.
Jude Law plays Alexei Karenin, Anna’s husband, with as much vigor as could be mustered for the role of a cuckolded hero of the state. Karenin suffers more as the entire truth, and the tragedy of Anna’s position, becomes evident. He has no more ability to control the outcome than does Anna. They are both trapped by social rules of conduct that are stronger than law.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson has to try very hard to be Count Vronsky, who lures Anna to her demise, and he only partly succeeds. Perhaps this is because those of us who have read or seen the story many times before are double the age of the characters. It is hard not to see them as immature.
The film starts with the grand ball where the characters, and their love aspirations, are introduced through a supremely stylized dance. Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is introduced as he gains and loses ground with his lover Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Anna gets dicey with Vronsky.
In choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s surrealistic over-the-top treatment of the emotions of feverish love, the tempo of the music grows faster and faster and the various lovers lose, regain and lose gain their partners. By the end of the dance, they are all dizzy with emotion. A good example of how Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard use an innovative screen play to bring new perspective to an old story.
As an example of how the creative staging saves this film, there is a scene in the first half where a horse race takes place across the stage, in front of the audience, in the make-believe fantasy theatre that is St. Petersburg. As the horses run in front of the crowd with the force of a tornado and the thunder of a freight train, the Count comes piling off the stage and into the crowd, head over heels in a lethal crash and fall with his mount.
Possessed with fury (unfortunately, a temper tantrum that emphasizes his diminutive properties) the Count euthanizes his horse them and there. From that point forward, there will be no turning back for the audience; either the audience in the film, or the audience watching the movie. We are one with the actors and this is a story of life and death.
This version of “Anna” is a great story, but it will not go down in history as adding significantly to past productions. Such is the luck of someone who tries the remake that has been done so many times before (25 plus?); there are no surprises, so there had better be some innovation.
The first half of the film is filled with the hustle bustle of the moving sets, the sexual chemistry of the public dance where lovers meet and the romance of the old country. The second half relies too much on the audience knowing the story. The film conveys less of the emotion of the novel and the viewer is left to dread the inevitable end.
Joe Wright, Keira Knightley and the rest of this fine cast and crew need to be more creative in their future productions. They need to make new stories instead of reinventing old ones.
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Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Release Date: November 16, 2012
MPAA: Rated R for some sexuality and violence
Run Time: 130 minutes