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Blu-ray Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

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If you are going to fail at something, you might as well do it spectacularly.  Why go out with a whimper?  Go out with a bang.  If you’re doing something do it big and do it loud and if it doesn’t work, you can at least say you were trying to shoot the moon.  Picking up 25 points is so much better than picking up 10 and still coming in last. 

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) does just that.  It tries to shoot the moon and it ends up so startlingly bad that one simply has to admire the attempt at a new and different take on a tale that has been told dozens (hundreds?) of times before.

The film, based on Tolstoy’s novel and with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, opts to play a primacy on sets (and to a lesser extent costumes) over the more mundane aspects of filmmaking like character and dialogue and acting.  As opposed to having the film take place in different locations, the majority of it is shot in a theater with sets coming in and going out as needed to show different locations.  Unquestionably an interesting notion, the end result of Wright’s shooting in such a manner leaves one with the inescapable impression that they are watching the filming of an awful play – not watching an awful play that has been filmed, but truly watching the filming of the awful play. 

Wright reunites himself with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen whom he worked with on 2005’s Pride and Prejudice for this endeavor.  Rather than casting them as the lovers here (as they are there), Knightley has the lead role and Macfadyen plays Oblonsky, Anna Karenina’s brother.  Jude Law plays Anna’s husband, Karenin, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson takes the role of Vronsky.  They all, along with the rest of the cast—which includes Ruth Wilson, Michelle Dockery, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, and Domhnall Gleeson—end up hampered by this filming of a bad play.  Macfadyen (who is generally wonderful) plays more than one scene in an overly broad fashion.  It works perfectly with the notion of the filming of a bad play, but doesn’t help the movie in any way whatsoever.

One of the other main issues of the film is that Knightley’s Anna comes off as thoroughly dislikable.  Outside of being attractive, it is absolutely impossible to figure out why either Karenin or Vronsky can stand to be in her presence for more than five minutes.  I don’t believe that the fault here lies entirely with Knightley’s performance – the audience really needs to get to know and understand Anna and where she’s coming from before she has her affair, but Wright doesn’t allow us that opportunity.  Having made the sets of the movie of primary import, we are all so dazzled by them (and make no mistake there is genius in the idea) that by the time we can settle down and figure out what’s going on in the film, Anna has already launched herself headlong into the affair.  There seems to be absolutely no discernible reason for her having done this except that Vronsky is an attractive man. 

For his part, beyond being an attractive womanizer, Vronsky has no character whatsoever.  Virtually no one in the film does, they are all so reduced to simple one-line ideas about them (Anna – torn between two men, Karenin – duty to the state and what is “appropriate” above all,  Levin – desperately in love… both with a woman and the land) that once the audience does start paying attention to them the characters’ one-dimensionality quickly is usurped by the sets’ two-dimensionality.  Even those sets however can’t hold one’s attention for the 2 hour and 10 minute runtime, making Wright’s Anna Karenina a slog to get through.  It is like a Baz Luhrmann idea gone horribly awry.

What we can be thankful for with the Blu-ray release is that those brilliant sets are shown in wonderful detail.  The movie has a gorgeous, rich, look to it, one that is evident in this release.  The costumes are true works of art and the fine details within them clearly evident.   The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is also quite good.  I am not entirely sure one will believe that they are within the space of the theater in which the movie is filmed, but the surrounds do help move one around.  It is well-leveled and the Oscar-nominated original score plays clearly and cleanly.  It is evident both in the audio and video elements of the release why the film has the Oscar nominations it does (beyond original score, it is also nominated for cinematography, costume design, and production design).

The bonus features included on the disc are of the typical EPK variety.  There is a commentary track with Joe Wright and short pieces on the tale, adapting Tolstoy, Wright’s work on the set, and Knightley as Anna.  There are also deleted scenes, a DVD, and both iTunes and UltraViolet copies are included.  The best of the bonus features is the truly odd time-lapse photography which offers up a look at the change made to the theater set and some of the filming on said set.  It would be better if one could tell how long a period of time was covered by the time-lapse, but perhaps that is asking too much.

It may have a good cast, it may have four Oscar nominations, it may be directed by Joe Wright, and it may have a screenplay from Tom Stoppard.  It may have beautiful sets and gorgeous costumes.  In short, 2012’s Anna Karenina may have all the elements needed for a masterwork, instead, it is a spectacular failure, a movie full of pomp and circumstance and absolutely nothing else.  Wright’s idea of filming so much of the movie within this theater setting is an interesting one, but that is all the movie has.  The thing exists in this odd dream-like state with pseudo-sets and lines of dialogue being spoken out of nowhere, to no one, and for no particular reason.

Do yourself a favor and skip this.  Wright is a good, interesting director (see 2011’s Hanna), and he will be back with other films, but Anna Karenina is a miss of very large proportions.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.