Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Kiera Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson
(R, 130 min.)
“The first kiss is stolen by man: the last is begged by the woman.” H.L. Mencken
Over-stylized and artificial, the tail wags the dog in this pretentious reinvention of this Russian classic. Tolstoy’s story of the “doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky” should have been enough to carry the film.
Instead, it’s almost as if beginning film students have had a field day showing off their latest techniques. Much of the story takes place on stage, supposedly underlying the artificial roles foisted on the Russian aristocrats by a hypocritical society.
A toy train becomes a real one, a stage door opens onto a full landscape, and St. Petersburg dissolves into a backstage of ropes and rafters. Even a steeplechase takes place on stage. At times, one almost feels like we’re watching a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, as Karenina’s brother, Oblonsky, changes his coat, almost performing a pirouette as he slides out of one jacket and into another. It’s a mish mash of styles and form and distracts from the story.
Tom Stoppard, the screenwriter, tries to do to Tolstoy what he did to Shakespeare when he rewrote Hamlet from the perspective of two “blokes,” as he put it, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, in his very successful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Perhaps one reason that play worked so well is that the elements of Shakespeare’s Hamlet were already quite familiar to audiences. Therefore, Stoppard’s machinations of the point of view and characters, not to mention his experimental techniques, stood as separate from Shakespeare’s classic.
With Tolstoy it’s different. Most of the audience is unfamiliar with Anna Karenina. We must absorb the plot as well as Stoppard’s whimsical presentation at the same time, and our attention is diverted by the style away from the substance. Our focus is on the lovely costumes, the staging, instead of on the characters, who actually drive the novel.
And all the characters suffer in this adaptation. I agree with critic Ben W. Heineman Jr. that some are so underdeveloped as to be nothing more than “cartoonish, made to utter but a few lines to move along the fast-paced tableaux.”
We fail to feel the suffocating conventionality of Anna’s husband Karenin (Jude Law). In fact, he not only appears to be somewhat reasonable, but almost sympathetic as the cuckolded spouse.
Anna (Keira Knightley) comes off as headstrong and selfish, her love for her son conveniently overthrown by her passion for Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). The qualities that make her sympathetic in the novel, her passion and vitality, her love of art and literature, and her disdain for hypocrisy are scantly developed, if at all. It is mostly her physical beauty that comes across, the camera as adoring a follower as the dashing count.
Which brings up another point. The “dashing” count isn’t – dashing, that is. He certainly doesn’t raise my pulse. I might not go so far as some who have called him a “pretty boy,” but he is almost as affected as his curled mustache. He confidence is of the strutting variety, something put on just as surely as his beautiful white cavalry uniform. Here is yet another character who would seem more at home in a Gilbert and Sullivan piece rather than the richly textured Tolstoy saga.
Screenplay writer Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright do succeed in creating a visually arresting film, though. The sense of cold is almost palpable. When Anna steps down from the train, the steam locomotive is encrusted with ice, a cold so enveloping we know her beautifully tailored fur trappings will not stave it off.
In fact, what we have here is more rightly called a costume picture, a feast for the eyes. The gowns glitter; we can almost hear the taffetas and silks scraping against their crinolines. The jewels are Russian ice arrested, white diamond icicles decorating a well-formed ear lobe.
Perhaps like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette 2012’s Anna Karenina becomes a superficial spectacle that seems strangely seduced by the excesses it portrays. The giddy camera gives us plenty of eye candy – gorgeous gowns, sparkling champagne, and iced delicacies, but seems to forget what film making is all about -- the art of telling a story.
The urban life of tearooms and balls is not the only side of Tolstoy’s Russia. He also shows us the rural life, especially when we go to the rolling farmland of Kostantin Levin. Forget about delicacies such as Blini with Caviar, Chicken Kiev, or Beef Stroganoff, and settle down for this hearty Cabbage Soup.
It smells so delicious that perhaps Anna would abandon her taffetas for some plain muslin and share it with us.
Here are a few other Russian foods to complete the menu:
Russian Cabbage Soup
Original recipe makes 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds ground lean beef
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
4 cubes beef bouillon
2 medium carrots, shredded
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 quarts water, divided
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 head cabbage, cored and cut into wedges
Crumble the ground beef into a large pot. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, beef bouillon cubes, carrots, onion, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Pour in 1 quart of water, and bring to a boil. Stir to break up the beef while heating. Once the soup comes to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes over low heat.
Pour in another quart of water, and return to a slow boil. Add garlic and cabbage. Simmer for 25 minutes, until cabbage is tender. Ladle into soup bowls to serve.