‘Anna Karenina’ Movie Review – Unfocused Literary Realism
Even though we have the much-anticipated end of the Twilight saga coming this weekend, Joe Wright’s (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) Anna Karenina opens in limited release. It won’t have a smidgen of the box office draw, but it’s interesting a classic, tragic love story is in competition. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure it’s the competition it deserves, as the picture disappoints in some ways.
Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1877 novel of the same name is widely considered the beginning of literary realism, a genre that focused on telling stories how they really were. Before its publication, literary works were widely unrealistic. This has no doubt translated into a plethora of film adaptations (10 to my count). I’ve seen exactly zero of these versions, and I’m sad to admit I haven’t even read the book.
In some ways, this could be the best way to view Wright’s newest installment because it allows me the rare opportunity to judge the movie without preconceived notions.
Going back to the idea of literary realism, Anna Karenina does try to focus a lot on the cultural aspects. It’s a story about gender double-standards, among other things, and it highlights the importance of storytelling to culture.
For plot points, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) enters into an adulterous relationship with Court Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but the ramifications within 19th-century Russia are out of her control. Although she may see her new relationship as heartfelt, the rest of society wants nothing to do with it.
The period drama reiterates the unfortunate double-standard that still widely exists today: an unfaithful woman is scrutinized more than a man. Like I said, it’s unfortunate (and unfair), but film (and storytelling) exists as a way of pointing out cultural inconsistencies.
So then what’s wrong with Anna Karenina? For starters, and I hope this isn’t the case in the original novel, but the title character simply isn’t strong enough. It’s one thing to make a bold stance on culture – something I’m definitely advocating – but in order for it to be fleshed out, Anna has to be a strong, independent woman. Unfortunately, she comes across as completely helpless and thus the film feels a little too emotionless. It’s part of the tragedy, yes, but there are ways to make her stronger.
Secondly, there’s not quite enough focus on the failed relationship running simultaneously with the new one. There’s a reason Anna is essentially leaving her husband Alexei (Jude Law). However, we’re not given much on why she’s choosing a new love. There could be an argument it undermines the mother-son dynamic, too.
This is all unfortunate because the movie seems to drag at 130 minutes. For me, adding any more story would be problematic. Instead, it could use some focus-honing, meaning breaking up the themes and focusing on one or two, rather than trying to gloss over a bunch.
Still, there are definitely things to enjoy. It seems like I’ve focused on what didn’t work, but Wright’s direction isn’t a complete misfire. In fact, the stylized presentation coupled with the awesomely photographed period aspect made Anna Karenina a good-looking film. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the performances either, with Taylor-Johnson being my personal favorite.
I understand I lack a degree of credibility to judging Anna Karenina, but based on what I saw, I think the story had an interesting target, but it seemed to miss its mark. There are things to love, but there are certainly things to criticize. By naming the story after the lead character, it seems obvious she should be the strongest character. Without this, the cultural realism and what the story has to say about culture doesn’t seem, well, credible.
See the movie this weekend and judge for yourself.
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