Anna Karenina: A Review

My wife and I went to see the film Anna Karenina last night.  It occurred to me that producing and directing a film is, in some respects, like writing a book.

So, what did we think of the film?  First, what we liked.  It is quite a beautiful production: eye-catching costumes, wonderful sets, and some of the characters are handsome/lovely.  The story – as far as I remember – is quite close to Tolstoy, and I’ve had a long admiration for the classical Russian authors, my favourite being Mikhail Sholokhov (And Quiet Flows the Don).

Having said that, we found the film disappointing.  The Daily Telegraph gave it a three star rating.  I guess two stars would be pretty harsh and it certainly doesn’t deserve four stars.

  • Casting: Keira Knightley is lovely, but she seemed one-dimensional as a great aristocratic beauty.  She didn’t convey the powerful erotic lust which Anna felt for Count Vronsky, nor did she capture the emotional degradation of a fallen woman.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson was mis-cast as Count Vronsky: he seemed more like a sallow youth than a dashing, bold cavalry officer and womaniser.  To be fair, his costumes were, I think, poorly chosen: plain white tunics with brass buttons.  Jude Law was excellent as Alexei Karenin, Anna’s emotionally chilly and reserved husband.  Kitty, a pretty young thing who fancies Vronsky, and Levin a wealthy farmer who is crazy about Kitty and finally wins her seem  very real.   These are the same challenges that the writer faces with his characters: how to make them real, and interesting.  I’m afraid with Anna and Vronsky, the director, Joe Wright, didn’t quite make it.
  • The Set: Much of the film is set in a 19th century dilapidated theatre.  This was done to keep the production budget under control.  Fair enough.  But, some of  the scenes are shot in the real world, so there is a back-and-forth between the theatre and the real world.  These abrupt transitions are distracting, and seem to have been selected only because it was difficult to get the desired effect in a theatre setting.  To me this is a cop-out.  If you’re going to choose an unusual setting, stick with it!
  • The Love Scenes: The scenes of Anna and Vronsky making love didn’t work for me.  They were shot as blurry close ups, and they failed to convey the personal, emotional and erotic dimensions.  As the scenes of the ‘love making’ transitioned, I kept wondering, ‘is that an arm or a leg? his or hers?’  There are probably restrictions on what Ms. Knightley will do on film.  Fair enough.  But one doesn’t have so show her off-limits areas to convey the splendid lust that Anna and Vronsky were feeling.  It is difficult to write good sexual prose, and I admit to not having mastered the technique yet, but I’m going to keep trying, because I think sex is an important dimension of being human.
  • Too Many Characters; Too Long: When one is writing a novel, one doesn’t worry to much about too many characters, as long as they are necessary to the story, and eliminating them would seem to short-change the reader.  In a novel, it is easy to introduce new characters: their names and relationships are usually made clear.  In a film, it is much more difficult: the director doesn’t stop the film and announce, “Now this  is Harry’s Aunt Margaret.”  In Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina there are characters who just appear, and who say important things, but one doesn’t understand what their relationship to others might be until later the film.  This suggests that Wright expected his audience to read the novel before coming to the film.  I did, but it’s been so long that I didn’t remember the minor characters.  I think that many writers – myself probably included – go on telling the story too long.  At over 800 pages for Anna Karenina, Tolstoy himself may have been guilty of this.  (The novel includes extended descriptions of Levin’s agricultural processes.)  In a book, writers may be able to get away with this: the reader just skips ahead.  For a film (this one has 246 scenes), it’s impossible to fast forward – unless you’re watching it as a DVD.

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