My Thoughts on the Film Version of “Anna Karenina”

The first thing I wanted to write about after seeing Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina? Sound. The sound of a fan, whirring on Anna’s neck. Horses, their hooves rumbling of thunder. A train, with no intention or ability to stop. In one scene, during one moment, all three of those images entered me, through hearing a single sound. Later, in this same scene, Anna’s lover looks upon his fallen horse, her back broken. He shoots her in the head. Near the end of the film, Anna lays her grief under the wheels of a train. The entire essence and arc of the film is here. The fan, the horses, the train. All one within the sound.


The artifice of this bold and gorgeous adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel has understandably proven divisive. You either appreciate the Brechtian aesthetic, or you flat out don’t. But the thing is that I typically don’t like the “THIS IS THEATRE” artifice; yet it worked for this film. And the cool thing about this approach was that Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard did not limit themselves to the point of handicap. They allowed certain characters to exit the theatre from time to time, and man…nature has rarely looked as refreshing and desirable as here. After near suffocation in the stuffiness of that theatre, the outdoors were a veritable paradise.


And this is what love does. According to the film. What will you give, and lose, in order to taste the paradise waiting beyond those theatre walls? How long can you stand the resentment of those that chose to stay inside?


Without divulging the plot for those that haven’t read the book (like me), much less the way the story is told, I feel that Anna Karenina is one of the most comprehensive observations of what love is or can be that I have ever seen. Through the threaded story lines of the various characters, as well as individual moments that collect themselves in my mind as separate jewels adorning one necklace, we have the opportunity to decide for ourselves what kind of love we want for ourselves. And, for some of us, what kind of love we deserve.


Reading a recent review of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, the critic noted that Lee reminded him that in movies, image is chief, not the word. Having seen both Lee’s film and Anna Karenina, they both demonstrate the power of image in very different ways. There were at least 4 or 5 times when a single shot made me say “wow”. It’s part of why I remained interested throughout this 130 minute film; I knew that another stunning sight was well on its way. One scene in particular, early in the film, featuring a heated pair of waltzes, is one of the most dazzling sights of the year for me. The movie dances, figuratively and literally. If the world were literally a stage, may we all be as graceful as this one.


Life of Pi is a book that was said to be impossible to film. Same for Cloud Atlas. And on paper the concept of this version of Anna Karenina would sound equally suspect. I personally enjoyed all three of these so-called impossible films. But Anna Karenina more than comfortably waltzes above them. On my year end list, it will come very close to rising above them all.


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