Guess what I did last night? I saw Anna Karenina, and it was…not very good. In fact, somewhere in the last fourth of the movie, I found myself actively thinking, just throw yourself in front of a train already. The last time I thought that, I was watching Ryan Gosling stare moodily into the distance and grip a stick shift. Here’s the difference – Drive didn’t feature a shot where its protagonist’s head gets knocked off by said train (surprisingly).
Making an adaptation of one of the most famous works in literature is a difficult prospect, no matter how you slice it. Anna Karenina is a carefully layered, deeply psychological narrative that stretches out over years. It’s the Russian novel of Russian novels, all quiet gestures and endless introspection. It depends on etiquette and politics, on the banal tragedies of a too-comfortable life and the different solutions people find for them.
Joe Wright makes some bold choices in attempting to translate all of this into film. Really, he does. He sets the society driven worlds of St. Petersburg and Moscow in a literal theatre, where there are sets and props and theatrical transitions, where you can see the fly system and sandbags, where every gesture is precisely choreographed. It’s a brilliant metaphor, and in the film’s opening sequence, Wright introduces this world, and it’s thrilling. Oblonsky’s office is a soundscape of bureaucracy, Anna lives on stage, and in one lovely moment, an army of civil servants transforms into a street scene, punctuated by tubas and accordion players. It’s clear, for that first fifteen minutes, that choices have been made. It’s pretty to look at and the metaphor is smart, which is what makes the rest of the movie so, so painful.
I know the man can compose a shot. I know he can wring humanity from his actors because there are moments in this film that just ache. Witness Levin and Kitty in the Sherbatsky’s parlor, or Stiva (the pitch-perfect Matthew Macfayden) smoking outside, alone, just after his sister has died. So why weight down the film with telegraphed intentions and endless close-ups of a woman making sad faces? Why compress an emotional plot into mere indications of feeling when you clearly have the tools to paint it fully and for real? Does Anna love Vronsky or does she only want to bang him? The cause-and-effect order of the sex scenes here suggest the latter. Whenever we see them alone together, they’re naked or making out. Is that truly what love is in this world? No, it’s not, as we’ve seen Kitty and Levin demonstrate.
To me, that means Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard (I was so shocked when I saw his name pop up in the credits that I almost choked to death on a Junior Mint), have made another clear choice. They’ve chosen to portray Anna as a vaguely hysterical, selfish, childish woman who choose lust, not love. She is deeply unsympathetic, unlovable, though surrounded by extremely sympathetic and loveable men. Her brother, Stiva, commits adultery too, but he’s so charming about it that we forgive him instantly. That might be a comment on the nature of society or a gender binary, but it’s not. Stiva is simply less hysterical about it, and infinitely more likeable than Anna. It’s a shame that Mr. Stoppard, who has written so brilliantly about the many failures of love, should treat this one so poorly.
The film has also made a few missteps when it comes to casting. Joe Wright’s a literary kind of guy for whom Keira Knightley is a particular muse. He believes that she is every heroine – Elizabeth Bennett, Cecelia Tallis, and now, Anna Karenina. Because of course these women don’t have different characteristics, were not written by writers worlds apart. And weren’t they all described as dark haired with a perpetual slightly open mouth? She’s also supposed to be a married woman who has lived a life, who can say convincingly to Kitty, “How I wish I were your age.” But when Keira Knightley says that to the perfectly cast Alicia Vikander, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. The woman is only 4 years older than me. She’s certainly not far from Kitty’s 18. Why not Rachel Weisz or Cate Blanchett? Hell, I would have taken Kate Winslet.
Also, this is Vronsky?
This bathroom sink dye job is who Anna abandons her life and child for? This guy? Does this guy even like women?
That’s actually not very nice to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who turns in a solid performance as the lovesick Count. I’m going to go ahead and blame Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer, and the whole makeup department for this mess. Poor guy. He’s acting the hell out of this role, but he looks like an effeminate French footman who got cut from Downton Abbey.
But Jude Law’s Karenin is elegant, quiet, understated. (That’s why I chose him instead of Keira as the featured image for this post.) Never have I felt so much empathy for the man. Once again, this film shows that it is capable of hitting the right notes – it just, for some reason, chooses not to.
What would that reason be? Why, why, why, did all of these talented people get together to make a bad movie when all the evidence shows that it could have been good? Hell, it could have been great. There are risks in this movie, and there are gorgeous moments and chances. But all the metaphors in the world aren’t enough when the filmmakers think they understand the story, think that so thoroughly that they are blind to the complexities they’re missing.
Yeah, so, I’m definitely not going to touch The Great Gatsby.