Leo Tolstoy. I've never had the guts to try one of his behemoth novels, but movies? Sure, why not?!? Let's give 2012's Anna Karenina a shot.
It is 1874 in imperialist Russia and Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) visits her brother's family in Moscow from St. Petersburg. Her brother, Stiva (Matthew Macfayden), has been kicked out of his home by his wife who caught him with a mistress. During her visit, Anna attends a ball, meeting Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young, handsome, glamorous cavalry officer with quite the reputation as a ladies man. She is immediately drawn to him, putting her in quite the morally questionable spot. Anna is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) for years and very much loves him, her life and her young son. She can't help what she feels though, and her emotions for Vronsky seem very real. Pursuing anything with the young Count though could tear her life apart as well as the lives of her family.
A Tolstoy novel from the 1870s, 'Anna' is a classic novel that ranks with War and Peace as the Russian author's best. It has been adapted to film countless times (okay, 15 according to Wikipedia) and with director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) at the helm of a very talented cast and crew, this 2012 version seemed like a gimme. I'm a huge fan of historical epics and periods pieces, and I was psyched to check this one out. Even Netflix thought I'd like it, recommending a 4.1 on a 5 scale. The movie is a stunner to watch -- kudos to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey -- and features great uses of wardrobe and period appropriate attire. Even the music from composer Dario Marianelli is solid, a good mix of stirring epic and soothing classical, stands out from the crowd.
Unfortunately, not much else stands out from the crowd. Stylistically, there are issues which I'll get to in a bit, but the biggest issue kneecapping the story is the casting and the script. I like Knightley a lot, but she keeps playing the same part over and over again, a strong historical woman who's forced to deal with some gutwrenchingly emotional issue. Much of the movie follows her relationship with Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky, maybe the dullest relationship I can think of in recent memory. They exchange glances at the ball and are instantly in love. For some reason, Anna falls madly in love with him -- obviously because of his stirring personality -- and ruins her life. I liked Taylor-Johnson in Savages, and by all accounts, he's good in Kick-Ass, but other than his good looks, I thought his Vronsky had the personality of cardboard. It's hard to see why they're drawn to each other. Is it just a physical connection? That's all I was seeing.
Some of the supporting performances stand out for the better, even if their purpose is distracting. I especially liked Jude Law as Alexei, Anna's husband who comes out smelling like roses here. With their marriage possibly crumbling, Alexei must decide what is most important to him. As a powerful government statesman, his name and reputation are on the line, but that doesn't seem to bother him in the least. A solid, understated and emotional performance from Law. Macfayden is good as Stiva with Kelly McDonald playing his wife, Dolly. Also worth mentioning is Domhnall Gleeson as Levin, a young man from a well-to do family who wants to create a life for himself with Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful young woman and Dolly's younger sister. At a certain point though, faces start to look alike, characters run together, and none make too much of an impression.
One major style choice ends up handcuffing the movie in a big way. Filming his movie, Wright actually shot much of it on an old stage in an abandoned theater. Scenes transition from one to another, the camera whirling around to follow the characters. The sets, designs and backgrounds change, but much of the movie quite literally takes place on a stage. Is he going for a truly artsy look? If so, it doesn't work. It took me completely out of the movie itself, making me question if I was watching a stage-based adaptation instead of a theatrical release. While the thought was there to try something new/unique, it came across as pretentious a little bit. "Oh, look at me, look what I can do!" Too bad, because the visuals are certainly there to make an above average period piece.
Most of all, it's just the characters. For lack of a more thought out, articulate description, they're annoying. Anna and Vronsky look adoringly into each others' eyes, each imploring the other to tell them how much they love the other one. Anna is beyond stupid, not seeing what consequences her actions are going to produce. It's just disappointing. You can have all the great sets and designs, all the impressive set pieces, but it comes down to this. If you're not interested in the characters, it's hard to be interested in the film.
Anna Karenina (2012): **/****