I’ll admit that this might be a very good, perhaps even great, movie. But almost nothing about it works for me.
To begin with, let’s talk about Joe Wright’s direction. He’s decided to do (mostly) do away with exterior shots of Russia. Instead, he’s adopted a very complicated, aesthetic in which certain scenes appear to be set on a stage, and others backstage, or above the stage amongst the ropes. Based on interviews, his reason for doing this was because all the other Anna Kareninas featured the same locations. Come on, Joe, that’s a terrible reason. All the other Anna Kareninas also featured a female in the lead role – are you going to break with tradition there as well? You need a reason to do something, not simple a reason not to. In addition, if you’re going to do something bold and risky like this, you need to stick with it. You can’t just break from your aesthetic when it’s inconvenient and film a scene outdoors, which happens in “Anna Karenina.” The sparse, stagey aesthetic might have worked if Wright had fully committed to it, but personally, I find it distracting and uneven.
And then there’s the source material. I’ve never read “AK,” but I hope it’s better than the treatment given here. It’s supposed to be a romantic tragedy, but it comes across and just a bunch of whining by a beautiful aristocrat because she can’t have everything she wants, and must therefore throw herself under a train. Give me a break.
Of course it’s about the sexism, the different standards and consequences for men and women when it comes to sexual infidelity. A chief part of what drives Anna mad is Vronsky’s ability to go out, to continue to be a part of society, when all of that is lost to her. But you can cover that in a bawdy song or limerick; you don’t need to write a thousand page novel (or make a 2 1/2 hour movie.) So “Anna Karenina” needs to be about more than that.
Anna Karenina gives up everything for love, but then forgets, and wants things back, a little at a time. She wants to see her son on his birthday, and she gets that, though she has to steal it. Then she wants to go to the opera, and be accepted back into high society, and that’s when I stop feeling sympathy for her. I’m reminded of two movies: first, “The Deep Blue Sea,” a movie I loved, in which Rachel Weisz makes the same trade and ends up in the same position, but accepts it, sadly, as the consequences of the choice she has made. And secondly, “Vera Drake,” a movie I couldn’t stand because Imelda Staunton seems so shocked and horrified by what happens to her when she gets caught. Anna Karenina is unfortunately more like Vera Drake. I guess I have little patience for people who can’t lie in the beds they’ve made.
I’m not saying the way she is treated is just. I’m saying it should come as no surprise to her. She was once a central part of high society; surely she has turned her nose up at other fallen women. You accept the rules to the game when you start playing it. Anna Karenina is like a quarterback crying because she got tackled too hard. On top of that, the things she’s lost are only available to 1% of society. This is made perfectly clear to us in an early scene, where a railroad worker appears in front of her, startles her with his existence, and then bows his head and moves on. These people barely exist for the aristocracy, and yet they find a way to be happy without a night at the opera.
As a result, the last half hour is barely watchable, because all she does is mope around with tears in her eyes and whine about how terrible her life has become to Vronsky. Somebody get this woman a Dashboard Confessional CD and some fingerless gloves; she’s gone emo on us.
And so the ending reminds me of another movie: “Godfather Part III,” where legend has it the audience, so sick of Sofia Coppola, stood up and applauded when she was finally killed. I know I’m supposed to shed a tear for Anna Karenina, but I’ll tell you what, that train can’t come fast enough.