Saturday, November 17, 2012

Anna Karenina [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Anna Karenina [2012] (directed by Joe Wright, screenplay by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel [wikipd] by Leo Tolstoy [IMDb]) will probably irritate _some_ purists.  But as has been the case of the wildly extravagant recent adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes [2009][2011] stories and especially the Three Musketeers [2011] (complete with added "Da Vinci style airships" and "in 3D" no less ... ;-) it's more or less obvious that "purists" are not the intended audience here.  Instead the goal appears to be to re-capture _the original intended audiences_ of these once beloved stories, if not with fidelity to the "letter" of the originals then certainly to their spirit.  So just like The Three Musketeers was originally intended to be a teen-oriented adventure story and so the 2011 film sought _really, really hard_ to re-capture that spirit of _over the top_ adventure, so too, Anna Karenina was originally a novel about young adulthood (both early and late...) set in a milieu every bit as vicious/dangerous as that existing perhaps in today's Gossip Girl [IMDb] ;-). 

In the spirit then of the recent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers [2011], the presentation of Anna Karenina here is _highly stylized_.  Indeed, about half of the current film takes place "on stage."  IMHO the metaphor is _appropriate_ because even as the still quite attractive, late 20-something/early 30-something, though already married with a 8-10 year-old son Anna Karenina [IMDb] (played IMHO superbly by Keira Knightley) (in today's parlance, Anna could have easily been one of the neighbors on Desperate Housewives [IMDb] or, even more to the point, be considered to be a 19th century equivalent of a "MILF" but we get ahead of ourselves...) and her eventual lover, the younger but supremely confident, mid 20s-something, "dashing" Russian cavalry officer Count Vronsky [IMDb] (played again superbly by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) go about their lives and later ... their affair, _it is_ as if parts of their lives become played out "on stage" before their circle of family/friends.  So the stylization, that may irritate some older viewers actually _underlines_ the core of the story taking place.  (So honestly, I thought it was _great_).

How then does the story unfold.  The story begins as the novel with Anna traveling from the "more modern" St. Petersburg to the more traditional Moscow on something of a "rescue mission."  Her brother Prince Stepan "Stiva" Oblonsky [IMDb] (played by a mustached Matthew MacFedyen) had been "caught with the governess" of his children and, needless to say, his wife, the sweet if still from an aristocratic family (though presumable of a somewhat lower rank) Dolly [IMDb] (played by Kelly MacDonald) was upset.  (Apparently the Oblonskys did have something of a predisposition to ... "stray").  Anna came over to reprimand, in as much as she could, her largely incouragable brother and to try to smooth over things with Dolly.  "You have to forgive him." "But how?" "I know it won't be easy, but what else can you do...?"

While Anna is there in Moscow, Anna _also_ has the opportunity to attend the "coming out party" "debutante ball" of Dolly's 18-year old sister Kitty [IMDb] (played by Alicia Vikander and _again_ superbly cast).  When we meet her, Kitty's bubbling with excitement.  This is going to be her big night.  Yet as the night plays out, two things go wrong.  First, a bumbling if certainly utterly sincere (and also significantly older) admirer of Kitty named Levin [IMDb] (played by Domhnall Gleeson) comes over to her and _just before_ the ball is about to start _proposes to her_.  "Oh why, why him and why now...?" ;-)  Flustered and still trying to focus on what she believed was going to be _the beginning of her adult life_ she has to tell him "no" (crushing him of course) and then _refocus_ on the evening to come.

But the rest of the evening doesn't go well.  Kitty has had a crush on the previously mentioned "dashing" young mid-20 something Count Vronsky [IMDb], who _is_ dutifully attending "the ball."  Why?  Because it's a "big social occasion."  HOWEVER (and perhaps inevitably), for someone like Vronsky, Kitty's "too easy."  Yes, maybe she's "entering into society" that evening and all ... But to him, she's still "just a kid."  WHO he finds _far more attractive_ and _far more challenging_ is ... Anna, who's married, 30-something and really at the ball more or less _by accident_.  But yes, in a somewhat younger "Mrs Robinson" [IMDb] like (if _accidental_) way she _is_ really, really attractive.  So he comes over and asks her to dance ...  and they dance ... and dance ... and pretty soon _everybody else_ (including Kitty ...) _stop dancing_ and just watch them (with increasing scandal...) ... dance.  And all this then comes to be transported to the above mentioned _stage_.

Now Anna's husband, Karenin [IMDb] (played surprisingly but again perfectly for the role by Jude Law) is a _good_ if rigid/proper-to-a-fault man.  (One woman tells Anna of him: "You're married to a Saint.  And we all must cherish him ... for Russia's sake."  What 30 year-old woman would want to hear her husband described (only) in such terms .... ;-).  Throughout the whole of the tale, Karenin is _able_ to _forgive_ (why? because that's what good, proper men do in good society....).   But his rigid propriety renders him increasingly lifeless.  Anna, who didn't exactly search out Vronsky (or anyone else really) to have an affair with, once "involved" becomes increasingly so and comes to simply _hate_ the good if, yes, let's admit it, boring Karenin, her husband.

Those who know something about Sigmund Freud could perhaps appreciate the pre-Freud but now more or less _obvious_ split occurring between the Karenins.  Karenin, the husband, has basically given his lot to the "superego" doing _everything_ that Society wishes him to do.  Anna, instead chooses to follow her "id" choosing the pleasure of being with Vronsky over society's indeed _God's_ demand that, once married, she be with her husband Karenin.  In Freud's model, there's the adult "ego" which seeks (if often not particularly successfully...) to balance the demands of what one _wants to do_ (follow one's "id") with the demands of society/authority demands that one do (follow the "superego")  Here neither is willing to be a true adult here, and ...  

So soon enough, "the lot" of the various characters is cast.  Foregoing whatever else he might be thinking/feeling about all this, Karenin is willing to keep even his unfaithful wife under his wing while Anna increasingly just wants freedom.  The rest of the story plays out from there...
What, indeed, a story!  And for those who'd have any doubts about how it ends, remember that this story was written originally by Tolstoy, not a Hollywood hack.  Tolstoy was an Orthodox Christian mystic at the end of his life.  So God's will / judgement does _definitely_ play out here, if perhaps not in the knee-jerk hammer-over-the-head manner that sometimes we (believer or non) expect or even demand that God's will be expressed ...

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