Anna Karenina (2012)

It is a good sequence, Anna Karenina read-along then the movie after. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard wrote as if his viewers already knew the story well, or have seen other film versions, for here, we are watching a highly stylized adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel, and it seems that it is a case of style over story.

Anna Karenina Poster

Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) version is a bold and therefore risky direction. Instead of a realistic rendering of Tolstoy’s epic, Wright offers us a new portal into the story of Anna Karenina. All the world’s a stage, and if anything, the highly reverberated gossip of Petersburg, the adulterous affair of Anna, wife of the respected government official Alexei Karenin with Count Vronsky is aptly rendered a spectacle. Wright’s innovative concept is an interesting take, weaving his characters between the front and the backstage and into the ‘real’ set.

The idea is brilliant, the permeability of actors in and out of limelight, mingling between their own realities, and the idea that all the world’s a stage, one is both an actor and a spectator.

However, the major premise of the cinema is make-believe. It is the ‘realness’, the believability of the characters and their predicaments that arouse our empathy. That happens when we emotionally immerse into the film. As a result, we care for the characters, even though we may not identify with them.

But here while watching this film, I experience a kind of cognitive dissonance. With its setting in the theatre, at the front and backstage, it is like a kind of deconstruction if you will, for we see that these are merely actors acting, and not ‘real’. So as a viewer, I’m just like a fly on the wall, observing how a theatrical production is done. As a result, I find myself detached and aloof.

A consequence of the highly stylized gestures and movements is that they lead to overacting. And with that, believability is compromised. Now, by genre this is not a musical, so, when seeing characters walk like they’re dancing or their actions performed in unison, like the public servants rubber-stamping paper works, the effect is comical. Well, it might be the intended effect, but one that sticks out in a contrived way. The harvesting scene with the workers swinging their scythe at the same time (do they actually do that in real life, for morale?) is another example, makes me think of how natural the harvesting scenes are in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

For some reasons, far from Anna Karenina, I have Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in my mind as an example of a successful stylized and yet captivating film.

Nevertheless, there are many admirable elements in the film. First the sumptuous set design and costumes. The continuous camera work from scene to scene is interesting to watch. But after a while, I feel like I need a breather. Thanks to the external shots, albeit few and far between, I can get a gulp of fresh air.

And I must mention a couple of impressive scenes. First is at the beginning, the opening ball where Kitty sees Anna dancing with Vronsky. That scene is well done in its dramatic effects. I can see the actors’ inner turmoils exposed believably, and for a rare moment, Anna’s conscience at work.

Another one is the horse race. It is interesting to see a horse race in a theatrical setting, like an indoor corral. Putting the horse race in a theatre does not seem to work for me at first, but Wright has handled it effectively… Vronsky’s falling, Anna’s outburst, the shooting of the back-broken horse is one of the few captivating moments in the film.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson

As for the casting, I’m afraid it looks like there is a bit of a miscast for one. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is believable as a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, but here in his blond curls and starched white uniform, he looks more like a truant school boy than the military rising star Vronsky.

Keira Knightly’s poise and costume give an apt portrayal of Anna. But sometimes her facial expressions make her look like a rebellious teenager, fighting house rules and ennui.

The one role I enjoy most is Matthew MacFadyen’s Oblonsky. My opinion might differ with many. I think he is a much more convincing Oblonsky here than Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (2005), another Wright’s production. Jude Law’s character is also well-portrayed as Anna’s restrained husband Karenin the government bureaucrat.

Good to see two of Downton Abbey’s actors in the film, Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley) as Princess Myagkaya and for a brief minute Thomas Howes (Footman William) as Yashvin.

While the love affair between Anna and Vronsky leaves me quite detached, I do see love in others. I see it in Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) quiet yearning for Kitty (Alicia Vikander). I see it too in Kitty’s selfless caring for Levin’s ailing brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), and at the end I see it in Anna’s son Serhoza’s (Oskar McNamara) endearing concern for his toddler half-sister, and I see it in his father Karenin’s slight contented smile looking at his son care for Anna’s child with Vronsky.

And with that scene the film ends. All in all, the production is a brave new look at an old story. It can well lead to more readers trying to discover all the left-out conversations and story lines. And so be it, a worthy attempt to turn viewers back to the book.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


CLICK HERE to read my posts of Anna Karenina read-along.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

40 thoughts on “Anna Karenina (2012)”

  1. Ah Arti. Sigh. As you already know, I felt much the same as you … there was a good deal of breathtaking artistry in Anna Karenina but so much of that artistry seems at odds with connecting with the audience and driving the story forward. And like you, I have no idea what Wright was thinking about when he cast Taylor-Johnson! I know he was lauded for Nowhere Boy but he really was the ultimate Nowhere Boy in this one!
    By the way,I liked that rubber stamp scene – the ‘Stomp’ aspect appealed to me but even when I watched it I was thinking that not only did it have little to do with the story, but that the stylized interruption, with what could only be classified as a form of dance, was out of place.
    I do give props to Wright for being bold; he truly approached Anna as an art piece. A valiant if flawed, effort. I’m disappointed it didn’t soar for me but grateful the director braved something different anyway. That’s how we all grow as artists.


    1. Sim,

      You’re sure right about artists need to break through old mould to be innovative and not repeat what others have already done. So yes, kudos to Wright for attempting this new adaptation. Now I’m even more eager to watch Les Miz, a musical by genre is to visualize by dance moves and uniform actions and singing… all legit. 😉 Well, you’ve already had the privilege of enjoying it. Will you see it again when it’s released to the general public?


  2. I don’t yet have a close cinema with this on the playlist. It is up in Boston but there is no way, I would get anyone to make the drive. Good review, I bet agree on the casting and I am looking forward to seeing the costumes.


    1. Care,

      You know, even in our city of 1 million pop. we only have one theatre showing this. I’d expected more venues. How far are you away from Boston? What movies are showing in your town?


    1. Paulita,

      Yes, I was there at your blog to see the Snapshot. I’m skipping my Sat. Snapshot, since I want to post this Anna K. review as it just premiered. More movie reviews coming up. 😉 And yes, thanks for letting me know about the Dreaming of France on Mondays. Don’t think I’ve anything suitable for the theme at the moment. I’ll certainly stop by to view your post and your participants’.


  3. Thanks, Arti. Without going into it with the benefit of having read the book, I find this a fascinating and curious review. I still want to see it, but I think with a bit more open caution now. If I was nailed with choices and limited time, I think I’d opt for Pi, Les Mis, maybe Lincoln or this. A toss-up.


    1. Jeanie,

      But isn’t this exactly what the filmmakers want… any publicity is good publicity. Anyway, Anna K. has some tough competitions to get the attention of viewers with limited time. Let’s say in a nutshell, Lincoln for the historical, Life of Pi for the spiritual, Anna K. for the spectacle, and Les Miz … a must-see. But I’m sure you can spare the time for a few movies this Season. 😉


  4. I enjoyed reading your review. The film is not in our close area yet. We did go to the movies last Wednesday and I saw a poster showing Anna Karenina so they should offer it soon. We do not go to the cinema often so when we go we try to see several films. Last Wednesday we saw 3 films, back to back, and a third of a 4th film but we had not eaten since breakfast and it was 8 pm so we left – and it was not what I thought. We saw The Life of Pi, Argo and Skyfall. I liked them all – so very different. My favorite was Argo I think. Have you seen it? The last one, the fourth one we started to see for 45 minutes was Flight with Denzel Washington. A misnomer. It looks like the movie is more about his alcohol problem than with the flight.


    1. Vagabonde,

      How I admire you to have the time and stamina to watch and finish three films back to back… esp. these highly acclaimed ones. I’ve watched Life of Pi and Skyfall. My review of Skyfall has been posted (Nov.18). My film review of Life of Pi will be come out likely next week. I have yet to watch Argo, but will soon.

      Now I must say I’m so glad you watched Life of Pi and liked it. Considering your comment on my Life of Pi book review post, I think by now you know what the book is like… definitely not what you’d thought originally. I urge you to read it… you’ll be glad you didn’t just stay with the 3D visuals but have gone to the literary source on which this brilliant film is based. 😉


  5. It is as I feared: highly stylized and a blonde (wimpy!) Vronsky? I think not! I’m so sad that Tolstoy seems all but forgotten in this film, but I can’t say I suspected anything else. I’ll go for the beauty, the setting, the actors/actresses…but I won’t go believing I’ll receive the same story (and lessons) I read.


    1. Bellezza,

      No, it’s quite a different take and feel. So, don’t expect you’re watching Tolstoy. You’re watching Wright and Stoppard. Take your time. Whenever you’ve watched it and feel up to it, share your view then. I’ll be interested to see what you think.


    1. Petriesan,

      I’m glad you’ve enjoyed Anna K’s theatrical setting and Knightley’s performance. It’s definitely an innovative take on an old story. Thanks for stopping by the pond, throw in a pebble and make some ripples. 😉


  6. Thanks for providing such a thoughtful review Arti! The film sounds interesting at least even though not much like the book at all. I wonder if people who have not read the book will tend to like it better than ones familiar with it? I plan on seeing it but will be waiting for it on DVD.


    1. Stefanie,

      I think you’re right … maybe those who haven’t read the book would enjoy it more. Why, they wouldn’t be disappointed if some of their favorite scenes were not included in there. But then again, they might missed certain details, for Stoppard doesn’t dwell on long to explain things.


  7. I am so torn! Thank you for writing such a thorough and well-thought-out review. I have had doubts about the casting since it was announced, and that has made me hesitant to see this, in spite of how beautiful it looks.

    While I’m here, I wanted to remind you to click over to my blog to enter the giveaway for the Ireland Challenge. 🙂


    1. Carrie,

      I’d be interested to see what you think of it after you’ve watched it. Of course, we really can’t compare the film with the book, since the two are quite different medium. However, one can still judge it as a movie if it ‘works’ or not. And that I’d be curious to know your take.

      And, thanks for hosting the Ireland Reading Challenge. I’ve enjoyed reading the four books I challenged myself. I’ve also recently finished the Graham Greene one, will post soon. 😉


  8. I’ve read mixed reviews of this film – some have adored it, others, like yourself, not so certain. I tend to find that mixed reviews make me keener to watch or read something, to see whether I can find out what makes people react in such different ways! So I may well get this out on DVD in the future. Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful review, Arti – you are never less than fair and even-handed!


    1. litlove,

      I’d love to hear from you after you’ve watched it. But DVD just may give a different feel from the large screen. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your generous words. You’re always welcome at the pond. 😉


  9. I happened across a wonderful and thought-provoking quotation from Wendell Berry the other day, and your review brought it to mind: “If you can read and have more imagination than a doorknob, what need do you have for a ‘movie version’ of a novel?”

    There could be multiple answers, of course, but it certainly raises an interesting question or two.

    “Stylized” is a word that carries heavy connotation for me, not all positive. I think if I’m going to invest time in Anna Karenina this winter, I’ll do it by reading rather than watching!


    1. Linda,

      I’m sorry my review of Anna K. led you to think of Wendell Berry’s quote. I’m afraid I can’t agree with this particular view of his. In a previous post entitled “Can a Movie Adaptation Ever be As Good As the Book”, I’ve shared my opinion on exactly this same argument put forth in The Atlantic article entitled “Snobbery” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

      This is my view… If a story is good, it should be explored in all forms possible, whichever that works, stage play, radio show, cinema, dance, musical… all for a different angle of appreciation, a different experience, and maybe, some unexplored insights.

      So I can only say, I greatly admire Wright/Stoppard’s innovative interpretation and sumptuous presentation, but for me personally, it doesn’t work that well for reasons I’ve already explained as best I could in my post. I’m one totally enthused about turning a good story from a literary source into film version. How it can be done is up to the filmmaker, and I totally respect her/his freedom to interpret, express and create. Even if it doesn’t work that well, I applaud the boldness of creative thoughts and innovative attempt. After all, there are admirable cinematic elements in this one. But one thing I’m certain, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the book. 😉


      1. Oh, I mentioned the Berry quote not as a final word on the subject, but as an interesting “take” by someone who certainly has thought a good bit about writing and related disciplines. I certainly agree that books-into-film, poetry-into-song, song-into-dance and film-into-art can be done, and done very well. Sometimes, especially with books, a film can make memorable what otherwise would have been a tepid storyline.

        I don’t know quite how to explain my view on this, except perhaps to say that, with film, I feel as though my options for experiencing the story are more limited. You said it yourself – the filmmaker has tremendous power over how we experience the tale. On the other hand, it may just be nothing more complicated than the fact that I prefer books to film!

        But I tell you what. I’ll make a point to read AK this winter, and then I will see the film. Then I’ll come back and report – we can think of it as a little literary field trip!


  10. Enjoyed your review — the day ended up so nice I worked outside rather than going to see AK as planned. But maybe I’ll go tomorrow… I really want to see this.


    1. Janell,

      Looking forward to your sharing. Feel free to come back and drop me a comment or, write a review post on your blog. I’d be glad to see what you think.


      1. I’m back from the theater. And I found it brilliant.

        It helped to have the story fresh in mind. It also helped to have read many mixed reviews before attending, since it left me free to enjoy the film adaptation for what it was — part Russian ballet and part stage production. So much can be done with film. Little things, like the way Anna’s fan swooshes back and forth in one scene to give way to the sound of the train chugging in similar rhythm in the next. The film left me with a higher regard for Anna’s brother and husband. I found Oblonsky so funny; Karenin seemed less a technocrat than a Tin Man with a heart.

        About that staging device — other than your comment as to how characters are both actors (while on stage) and spectators (when leaving to join members of the audience)– did you notice any other significance to what happened upon the various levels of the stage? For example, was it only nobility that moved upon center stage? And when not on center stage, was there a difference in the type of scenes that occurred “behind the set” versus “in the audience?” There was too much to take in… it was hard to analyze and then also to watch, for the pure pleasure of it.

        I don’t know how you do both — so well — all the time.

        If I didn’t have so many other novels stacked beside my bed, I’d settle into the pages of AK again. Right now.


        1. Janell,

          Yes, of course, I haven’t thought of ballet. The idea is brilliant, isn’t it? It’s just that the execution of it is less than ideal. I’m glad you agree with me that Oblonsky is aptly portrayed. He and Karenin are the better actors. In contrast, don’t you find Anna is presented like an immature teenager, and Vronsky an unfortunate miscast.

          I really couldn’t have picked out all the details that you asked me about in your comment. As you can tell, I depend on mere memory to recall all that I’ve seen when I come home. So I must have missed quite a bit. However, for this one, I don’t have the urge to go back and watch it again though. Unlike Lincoln, which I’ve watched twice. And Life of Pi, which I want to watch again. Oh and there’s Les Miz coming up. Keeping us very busy these days.

          Hint: Go watch Argo. I’m sure you’ll want to share your after-thoughts.


  11. Such a thoughtful review, Arti! My daughter and I plan to see the movie when I visit her later this week. She has not read the novel, so I’ll be curious to see how our views differ.


    1. JoAnn,

      From the comments above, I’ve detected a general trend that, if one hasn’t read the novel one tends to enjoy the film more. See if this might apply in your case. Thanks for stopping by the pond. 😉


  12. Just saw this film last night. I loved Keira, which surprised me. She played Anna brilliantly I thought. A blonde, skinny Vronsky? Not so much.I thought the film quite upheld the novel except for the weird “all the world’s a stage” concept. I longed for more Russian scenes, but all in all I came away impressed.


    1. Bellezza,

      I like the ‘all the world’s a stage’ idea, but not in the execution here in the film. With St. Petersburg and Moscow in the great nation of Russia, you’d love to see more wide open scenes and elaborate designs. Being locked up at the back stage of a theatre is a bit claustrophobic for me. Sorry for the late reply, I didn’t notice this comment until now.


  13. Another great review Arti. Four of us saw it with mixed opinions, one not liking it at all really (primarily for the lack of empathy issue) and the others of us liking it to varying degrees with two of us feeling we liked it because of it was an interesting, intriguing way to do it. I wasn’t overly impressed with Knightley (too self-conscious a lot of the time), and not really with Vronsky either though he’s not an easy character I think.

    I wondered whether Wright (I loved Atonement – remember how it used the sound of the typewriter between scenes the way this one used the train?) was wanting to distance us a bit from the tragedy? The thing about the book as I recollect is that it has a strong socio-political element and goes on quite a long time after Anna dies. Perhaps Wright wanted us to be less emotionally involved with Anna and more analytical about the society? I wondered when I read it why it was called Anna Karenina really. Levin seemed the most significant character in the book (as I remember it).

    Overall, I enjoyed watching it – even though I came away not quite sure why he’d made it the way he did. Not an Oscar contender to my mind but I’m not sorry I saw it.


  14. WG,

    Yes, Atonement, I’d rooted for it a few years back when it was nom. for Best Picture Oscar, plus other categories. At that time, Keira Knightly and James McAvoy looked so natural as a pair of lovers. Here in Anna K., you’re right. Knightly looks very contrived… actually I’m beginning to feel that way watching her other movies in recent years, like, A Dangerous Method. Come Oscars this Sunday, I think Anna K. could win Best Costume Design. But here in this post, I more or less have laid out the reasons why I think it wasn’t nominated for more categories, albeit Stoppard’s concept is a good one.


  15. Finally saw the flick! And I liked it – for the stylized interpretation. I think doing it in this way makes it a different experience. Yes, bold. Faithful to what AK is ‘about’? Maybe not at all, but still interesting.
    I too questioned and was thrown by the wrong guy to be Vronsky. I thought Macfayden’s Oblonsky was great. Knightley did fine. I loved the drama and the costumes and am glad to have seen it.


    1. Care,

      Thanks for coming back to share your thoughts. I’m glad you’d enjoyed the movie, quite a different take, isn’t it? Have always valued your opinion. Thanks for stopping by the pond and throwing in your 2 pebbles. 😉


  16. It makes sense that there isn’t much love between Anna and Vronsky. I interpret their relationship as lust others have called it obsessive love, but nevertheless the film never really frames them as a love or good.


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