Film Review: Anna Karenina has finally arrived in theaters! After months of anticipation I have finally seen Anna Karenina. I normally don’t do film or TV reviews/discussions on this blog but I’m totally making an exception since this is a film based on a book…..and since I’ve been obsessing I thought it was only fitting that I do a review.

Anna Karenina has been made into a film many times over so then the question becomes, how is this film different from all that have come before it?

Hands down, Joe Wright’s vision is artistic and romantic. This is a film about love….the mise-en-scene and artful use of color, staging, and costumes really brought out that aspect of the film.

I watched many of the behind the scenes videos on the Focus Features website so I was familiar with the ‘the world is a stage’ concept of the film. One of the things Joe Wright discussed on the behind the scenes feature was how he saw Imperial Russia at that time:

The more Wright learned about 19th century imperial Russia, the more he was struck with its theatricality – its imported fashion appearing as costume drama; its tight circumspection feeling like constant spectatorship; its overblown performance spaces, be they opera houses, race tracks, or skating rinks. “Their ballrooms were often mirrored so that they could watch themselves and appreciate their own ‘performances’,” notes Wright. “Their whole existence became a performance with imported ideas of decorum, manners, and culture.” In the end, he hit upon staging the whole thing in a decaying theater, not as if it were a play, but as if Russian society were a theatrical experience.

Having the film take place on stage like a play really played into that romanticism and glamour that the story invokes. The act of watching a movie really appeals to our inner voyeur and having us watching a movie within a movie so to speak really enhances that experience.

The artful style, theatrical glamour, and romanticism that the mise-en-scene brought to the film set it head and shoulders above any of the earlier film adaptations of AK. My only issue with this artistic approach was it was that it might be a little too much for some people. Some might even say that the merging of film and stage is off-putting… I don’t know that I agree but I can see that it is a little daunting to figure out not only all the character names, places, and what’s going on but then to have the play within a play thing happening, it could be a little much.

For example, my husband went with me to the film and he has never read the book and didn’t know what to expect from the film. When it started he spent a full 30 minutes thinking that it was a play that had nothing to do with the story itself so he kind of tuned out and then was like oh wait this IS the film. It was a little overwhelming at times so perhaps less is more…???

Like most period pieces, the costumes were exquisitely beautiful. The gowns, hair styles, and jewels that Anna wore were attention-seeking and bold with lady-like finery and daring designs. I loved all the costumes! I would want to wear hats with netting, mink stoles, and pearls all the time now! If the costume designer doesn’t win some kind of an award for this film then there is something clearly wrong in Hollywood.

When the trailer came out, my biggest concern was Aaron Johnson’s ability to bring the sex appeal that Vronsky had in the novel. I really had my concerns, not that Johnson isn’t a good looking actor….he is, but I just envisioned a more masculine character that was not blonde.

However, his performance blew me away. In the book, I never really felt that Vronsky loved Anna as much as she loved him and likewise I never really felt ‘bad’ for him in the book.

On film, it was an entirely different scene. It was clear that Vronsky was immediately infatuated with Anna from the moment he met her on the train. When they met at the ball, I loved how overly cocky and arrogant Johnson came across but simply commanding Anna: “dance with me”. He pulled off the cavalier officer well.

As the story went on, Johnson really made the audience feel sorry for him. By the end, he went from cocky officer to a desperate man all for the woman he loved. She was literally his undoing. He gave up everything for Anna, he loved her and was willing to do anything for her….he was a ruined man without her, and I think the audience really could see that in his performance. Anna took a good man and ruined him.

As for Keira Knightly, she was a superb Anna. As I’ve said before, she does amazingly well in period dramas. In the book, I really felt sympathy for Anna. Here was this vibrant, passionate woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a boring man….it was only natural that she fall in love with an interesting man. So many people have criticized Anna in the book that she was manipulative and destroyed not only her life but the lives of many other people all for the sake of a love affair. I never felt that way when I read the novel….but in the film I certainly did.

On film, I thought Knightly did a marvelous job convincing the audience that she never really did know what she wanted and I think it was easier to dislike her in some ways. She loved Vronsky but continued pushing him away because of her own insecurity. I didn’t feel that she ever loved her husband or ever really felt guilty over what she was doing—in the books I felt that but not on screen.

In some ways I thought that Knightly could have brought more of that inner struggle and guilt that was so prevalent in the novel to the screen but in the end I thought it was alright.

The big letdown for me was Jude Law. He was by far too austere for my taste. I realize that Karenin was a cold, distant man but in the novel I felt he did respect Anna and loved her in his own way. In the film, I never felt any sort of connection between Anna and Karenin. Jude Law is a heavy hitter when it comes to drama roles and I thought he would have brought more to the table in this film. I never felt anything for his character….he was simply ‘there’ for me.

My only complaint that kept me from really giving this a higher rating was the second half of the film. At the beginning everything moved a long so fast! The staging and story were flowing so nicely and then having the constant movement of the ‘play’ happening…the pace was perfect and then after the race scene everything kind of slowed down and reverted back to a more traditional style of film which slowed it all down abruptly….particularly toward the end. I found myself wondering if we could move things along a little faster.

Over all I was satisfied with the film and the actor performances. Wright did a great job capturing the essence of love and the human heart. Stylistically this film might not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you love a good period drama and a love story than this is the film for you!

Best line in the film: “There can be no peace for us. Only misery and the greatest happiness”

Rating: B

5 thoughts on “Film Review: Anna Karenina

  1. I must admit that I am unfamiliar with the mise-en-scene style of filmmaking. Is it similar to the stage-esque filming lsimilar to The Phantom of the Opera movie from a few years ago, or is it an actual stage filmed cinematically? Either way, it sounds incredible and I can’t wait to see it.

    1. Hi Chris, mise-en-scene means “placing on stage”. It is an expression used to describe the design aspects of a theatre or film production, which essentially means “visual theme” or “telling a story”—both in visually artful ways through storyboarding, cinematography and stage design, and in artful ways through direction…you can read more about it here. So basically it means any kind of interpretive style in film that is artistic. I LOVED Phantom of the Opera BTW (one of my all time fav films) and yes this was a similar style with bold contrasting colors and costumes, but it also reminded me a little of Moulin Rouge….hard to explain why but for some reason it just did :). I think you will love it…..some parts were a little wanting but I thought the vision far out did any disappointments that I was feeling. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it! Be sure to let me know! 🙂

  2. I have been a it obsessive about this film as well. I had huge expectations for Jude Law, hmmm, sad he doesn’t portray Karenin the way he comes across in the book. I will be seeing it soon. Fantastic review.

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