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Drama: A married 19th century socialite must contend with the ramifications of her cheating on her husband with a young soldier.
It's 1874 and Anna Karenina (KEIRA KNIGHTLEY) is a young aristocratic socialite married to government worker Alexei (JUDE LAW) and mother to their young son. She's now heading from her palatial home in Saint Petersburg to visit her brother, Stepan Oblonsky (MATTHEW MacFADYEN), at his home in Moscow. He's recently cheated on his wife, Dolly (KELLY MacDONALD), with their governess, and Anna is hoping to smooth things over, all while Stepan enjoys a visit by his landowner friend, Constantine Levin (DOMHNALL GLEESON).
He's hoping to propose to Princess Katerina, a.k.a. Kitty (ALICIA VIKANDER), an 18-year-old socialite who's having her first public coming out at a grand ball. But she's more interested in Count Vronsky (AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON), a young handsome soldier, and thus Constantine returns home where he spends time with his brother, Nikolai (DAVID WILMOT).
Unfortunately for Kitty, Vronsky has set his eyes on Anna and vice-versa, and he follows her back to her home. She's torn about what to do, but eventually gives in to her desires. From that point on, she must contend with the personal and social ramifications of her adultery.
OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Okay, I'll admit it. I've never read Leo Tolstoy's mid 1870s novel, "Anna Karenina" and I haven't seen any of the various film, TV or stage adaptations of it. Nor have I had any desire to do so in my 48 years of life. It's not that I have something against the author, Russian literature or period drama pieces about love, angst, guilt or what have you. No, the story of a married Russian aristocrat and socialite who cheats on her husband and suffers the consequences simply has elicited zero interest in my heart or soul and thus has not appeared anywhere on my must-see read or see radar screen.
Of course, now I'm a movie reviewer and a high profile version of the tale is being released this week, it's my duty to see and review it. And if you're curious about my reaction now that I've finally been exposed to the nearly 150-year-old story, I can sum it up in one utterance: "Meh." It's not that it's bad on any front, and like many period costume dramas it has wonderful production design, cinematography and yes, glorious costumes.
And it's not like I have something against such films. After all, I liked the 2005 version of "Pride and Prejudice" that just so happened also to feature this film's star & director combo of Keira Knightley (in front of the lens) and Joe Wright (behind it). It's just that the story -- that the filmmaker tries to enhance with all sorts of directorial flourishes -- didn't hook or engage me, and the protagonist -- superbly played by the young actress -- didn't elicit any sympathy from yours truly.
Maybe it's a male-female thing as some fellow reviewers of the other gender absolutely loved the pic and one even described it as "hot." Perhaps they share some degree of similar feelings with the title character in being (or having been in) an okay but passionless marriage. Thus, maybe they sense something of a kindred spirit in or at least fantasize living vicariously through the young woman who allows her eye, then loins and then heart to wander for a single guy who enters her universe and pursues her with abandon. Then again, you'd think having her life unravel -- including being ostracized by her societal contemporaries -- would be enough of a deterrent for such thoughts or daydreams. To each their own, I suppose.
There is no denying, however, that Wright appears to be having fun creating something of a film-stage play hybrid, with set pieces moving into place to create backgrounds, orchestra members walking through the scene playing the score we're hearing, a horse race having both real horses and riders with canvas backdrops and model trains standing in for the real thing, to name just a few of such flourishes. They are interesting and sometimes entertaining to watch, and while the frequency of their use begins to wane in the second half, they might, however, also prove distracting to some viewers.
Others, including yours truly, might also view all of the visual shenanigans as compensating for a story that simply isn't that interesting, even with subplots about the protagonist's brother (Matthew MacFadyen) who also turns out to be a cheater (I guess it runs in the family) or his landowner friend (Domhnall Gleeson) who likes a young debutante (Alicia Vikander) who has her eyes on a soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who turns out to be the one who seduces the title character. Holy soap opera, Batman!
The performances are generally good, with Knightly really rolling in the angst, melodrama and lustfulness of her character with near reckless abandon. Jude Law is excellent as her cuckolded husband who can't understand why she cheated, tries to present her an option of redeeming herself, and then drops the hammer when he's had enough. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is okay as the "boy toy," but doesn't create enough of an alluring persona to make me believe Anna would fall for him.
The costumes are wonderful, the production design is exquisite, and the score is similarly Oscar worthy. I just wish the story -- adapted from Tolstoy's novel by Tony and Oscar award winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard -- hooked me more than it did. Again, it might be a gender thing as despite all of the eye candy, I couldn't wait for the 130-some minute film to release me from my duty of reviewing it. It's not awful or bad. It's just boring in terms of plot and features a protagonist who rightly reaps what she sows and isn't likeable in the slightest. If only I cared one way or the other about her plight. I didn't, and thus "Anna Karenina" rates as just a 5 out of 10.
Reviewed November 1, 2012 / Posted November 16, 2012