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The Keira Knightley romance might win an Oscar or two this weekend, but it should be better than it is...
Universal / 130 Minutes / 2012 / Rated R / Street Date: February 19, 2013
It should have worked. Look at the pedigree that this Anna Karenina adaptation has: a hot, Oscar-bait director (Joe Wright), a high-profile cast (Keira Knightley, Jude Law), a script from an Oscar winner (Tom Stoppard), and a production team that was able to snag four Academy Award nominations even though the end result film couldn’t find a good review anywhere. For a studio, this kind of movie is awards season gold.
Yet Anna Karenina is purposefully, almost brazenly dull, a film that appears hell-bent on eschewing the norms that a period piece romance of this style usually resorts to. This is a heady adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, one that takes a lot of time chronicling the historical syntax of the love story at its center, but feels almost insistent in sidestepping around its more melodramatic aspects. It feels more like a graduate thesis on Anna Karenina than Anna Karenina itself.
The crux in Anna Karenina is true love and what one is willing to sacrifice in order to maintain it. Our titular heroine (Knightley) has a nice enough husband (Law) and a kid, and everything seems to be coming up roses - until she crosses the path of a cavalryman by the name of Alexi Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who lights a fire in her that she never knew could be possible. Not to give too much away, but things don’t end up all that well for ol’ Anna (that’s an understatement), but as her life and cultural status careen toward disaster, at least she’s able to find some passion along the way.
As swooning as Anna Karenina can often be, though, it comes across in Wright’s hands as being surprisingly dramatically inert. Synopsizing or truncating Tolstoy’s story lends it a distinct soap opera air, and Wright and Stoppard are fervent in their desire not to turn Anna into a Lifetime movie, but what they’ve missed in this decision is the universal erotic ferocity at the core of Tolstoy’s story. The way this new version of the saga is told, we’re spectators to the romantic connections in the film, but we’re never de facto participants in it: this Anna Karenina has all the vestiges of a big Hollywood romance, but, to be frank, it kinda forgot to throw in the romance.