September 8, 2012



ANNA KARENINA – Watch It At Home – Beautiful But Overconceptualized Version of the Tolstoy Classic

Joe Wright was introduced to the world with his film of Pride and Prejudice, and it seems like he’s been trying to escape the pigeonhole of staid Literary Classics director ever since. His Atonement, while based on another celebrated novel, included for no essential reason a showy single-shot set-piece that ran for minutes on end and included an army, among other things. He went on to the supposedly grittier The Soloist and the graphic-novel inspired Hanna. With ANNA KARENINA, he’s again in the “best-loved classics” section of the book store, but this time he’s tried to have his high-concept cinematic cake and eat it too.

The result is an Anna that feels very much like a theatre piece, and not just because Wright’s concept was to stage most of the action literally in a theatre, with painted sets and the walls and ceilings of the space clearly visible. It’s also that this resembles one of those stage productions that come regularly from ambitious directors determined to put their own stamp on a classic work, like an Othello set in the Deep South or a Three Sisters set in the future.

In this case, the “theatre” concept, (reportedly not envisioned by screenwriter Tom Stoppard when he wrote the script, but added later), emphasizes the artificiality of the social conventions that envelop Anna and the other characters, a world in which an involuntary gasp or even a glance can scandalize the entire nobility. Anna (Keira Knightley) does more than that, of course, entering into an affair with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that destroys her life with husband Karenin (Jude Law). This version also gives plenty of screen time to the relationship between Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), in which issues of trust and Vronsky also figure.

The approach is effective as far as it goes, and it’s gorgeously realized by Wright’s usual design team, including cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Sarah Greenwood. (The faux-classical score by Dario Marionelli is also lovely.). If anything, the cast is an embarrassment of riches, with people like Kelly McDonald, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Michelle Dockery and Shirley Henderson making brief appearances. The emphasis on artifice, though, has the effect of distancing one from the main story and characters. We observe Anna’s tragedy rather than feeling it, and Knightley seems oddly not the focus of the film. The romance isn’t helped by the fact that while Law is excellent, Taylor-Johnson is a bland, unengaging Vronsky.

This Anna is worth seeing, lush, accomplished and intelligent, but not in the end the thrilling illumination of the text that it’s so clearly striving to be.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."