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Anna Karenina (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 130 minutes.

OK for children.

Avant–garde can be OK in certain circumstances. However, one can go too far. That's what has happened here.

This is Tolstoy's famous story about love and Russian society in the 1870s, specifically 1874. There have been other filmed adaptations, all of which were set in 1874 Russia. Director Joe Wright wanted to do something less prosaic. So he set the entire movie in a beautiful decaying theater, which he intended as a metaphor for Russian society of the time as it rotted from the inside. That might be a brilliant idea, but it's far too arcane for a movie unless people know the idea going in. Even then it's still a goofy idea.

So the entire movie is filmed as if all the action takes place inside a theater. But it's not a stage play. It's an actual movie with big scenes. They just take place inside this theater. There is even a horse race, one of the pivotal scenes in the movie, where the horses parade across the stage. Other scenes, however, don't seem as if they were filmed in the theater, like, for instance, scenes of a huge train. But maybe it was (or was intended to be viewed as such).

This silly (as opposed to avant-garde) setting substantially diminished the enjoyability of what, for me, was a realitively entertaining film. The script by Tom Stoppard is excellent and the acting by Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and the rest is excellent.

This story of forbidden love and the turmoil it causes from an offended high society from the Leo Tolstoy novel has been filmed innumerable times. Greta Garbo filmed it twice, once in 1927 in a silent version with her real life lover, John Gilbert, and again in 1935 with Frederic March. It takes Wright 130 minutes to tell the same story that directors Edmond Goulding and Gilbert told in 1927 in 96 minutes (although this version apparently would be hard to identify with the book if one didn't know that was the source) and director Clarence Brown told in 1935 in 94 minutes, confirming the idea that modern directors simply can't tell a story in a reasonable period of time.

There are some terrific performances in Wright's version, however. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is outstanding as Anna's arrogant lover, Vronsky. Law is terrific (and almost unrecognizable) as Anna's cuckolded husband, Karenin.

Tolstoy's book is really about two love affairs, that of Anna and Vronsky, and that of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander, fresh off her smashing performance in A Royal Affair), who starts out the film with the hots for Vronsky before Anna steals his heart. Both give fine performances, but their affair is substantially subservient to that of Anna and Vronsky.

This is clearly too long, but the acting is so good that it's definitely worth a look. Too bad Wright didn't trust his talent and film it straight up.

November 12, 2012