Pop Culture Homework Assignment #9: Anna Karenina

When tackling gaps in my cultural history for this Homework Project, I should ideally consume the original work as it was intended. I was able to get the source material for things like Wuthering Heights and South Pacific, for instance. But other times, there's nothing to be done but to experience a work through an adaptation. I've never seen 1776 on stage, and likely never will. Today's assignment is the latter situation. I would love to have the time and concentration necessary to reading Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, but I've been swamped lately, and had to settle for watching the 2012 movie, instead.

I knew a few things going in. I knew it involved a doomed love affair. I knew that it involved suicide-by-train. And I knew that the movie won an Oscar for the costumes, and was nominated for cinematography and production design as well. So, I was in for a visual treat. I've been told that the book can be intimidatingly dense (even a slog at times), and worried that even cut down to film length, it would be a stifling, dry movie. The Netflix disc sat on my bookshelf, unwatched for weeks. Finally, I couldn't put it off any longer, and watched it on an appropriately cold, bleak evening.

For those not familiar with the story, here it is in a nutshell: Anna Karenina (Keira Knightly) is married to a noble, but stodgy Russian government official (Jude Law). She meets military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the two are immediately drawn to one another. Anna gets pregnant, and though her husband attempts to save her from ruin, her destructive love for Vronsky ultimately drives Karenin to seek divorce, dooming Anna's social position and limiting her contact with her existing child. She's ostracized from society, she's intensely jealous of any interaction Vronsky has with other women, and faced with what she sees as an impossible situation, she throws herself under a train. There are also a couple of side-plots, one involving Anna's lascivious brother and his long-suffering wife, and one about the agrarian worker Levin and his efforts to woo a high-society woman.

For such a tortured, moody story, the movie is quite propulsive, and moves along at a good clip. It certainly deserved all that awards chatter about the costume and set design; this film is gorgeous. One neat thing about it is that it's set as if the story were taking place as a play - several scenes are set on the stage of a theater with no audience. It certainly fits to present such a melodrama as a theatrical presentation, even if the characters open a door on stage to find a real-life snowfield. It was a smart visual choice, and really helped engage me with the characters.

The back third, though, is a bit of an effort. Having established all the characters' motivations, a lot of time is spent reiterating Anna's tantrums and her subsequent entreaties for forgiveness. On the one hand, it helps explain how both Karenin and Vronsky get increasingly fed up with her. On the other, we the audience are getting just as exasperated. By the time she throws herself under the train, I was thinking "God, finally." The side-plots are mostly well-done, though the stakes of the Levin story don't reach the heights the filmmakers would have liked. Man likes woman. Man asks woman to marry him. Woman puts him off for a while, then says yes. The end. The actors did their best with such thin material, and if you'll forgive me for being a bit shallow, was helped by the fact that Domhnall Gleeson looked goooooood.

Ultimately, I'm glad I watched it. Does seeing the movie (even if I had watched a more faithful adaptation) take the place of reading the novel? Absolutely not. But the purpose of the Pop Culture Homework Project is to get a working understanding of the things everyone else already knows about, and on that front, this film succeeded admirably.

Anna Karenina: B-


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