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If I’m going to fall asleep in a movie, it’s very likely that it will be during an extended dance sequence. Even in classic films like “Roman Holiday,” as soon the cast begins a few fleet-footed steps, my eyes start getting heavy. I know that dance is an important human art form—it’s just one that I don’t particularly understand. In film, which I feel is a medium best suited for telling stories, dance sequences are generally unnecessary, at times forced, many times not moving the story forward in any meaningful way, but rather grinding everything to a boring and frustrating halt. This is why, about 30 minutes into “Anna Karenina,” I began dozing. I never fully recovered.
After the dance sequence, when I was awakened by the guy sitting next to me, I had a hard time paying attention. “Anna Karenina,” though frequently called the best novel ever written by people who know what they’re talking about, must not translate well to the screen. Or the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with it, which is the more likely scenario. This film is terribly dull.
The story is about Russian aristocracy, the society that surrounds it, infidelity and social rules. Oddly, all of the Russians in the film speak with British accents. The film is an amalgamation of ornate set pieces that remind us of a stage play, with the main action taking place on the stage, while the background and travel occurring backstage and in the rafters. It is confusing at times, but well dressed and artful.
“Anna Karenina” is clearly an exercise in form over function, in style over substance. The vast majority of the film’s budget must have been spent on art direction. It might have been better served spending at least a bit of that money on a compelling script. Instead, we are treated to a bored housewife having a boring affair with a boring count before being boringly ostracized by civil society, which ultimately leads to a boring death. In Russian society, the common man gets bisected in train accidents while the rich have affairs and dance.
While I haven’t read the novel the film is based on, I doubt that such authors as William Faulkner would have thought so highly of the book if the plot was this thin. Some of the substance might come from the sub-plot of the young landowner that ran alongside the main story about Anna. But it was flaccid and significantly undeveloped, and I doubt Tolstoy would have been happy with this interpretation.
As I mentioned, the film looks wonderful. The train scenes are especially captivating—in fact, watching the wheels turn on the train is far more entertaining that anything that happens in the story. I would have rather watched the train run for two hours.
The performances by the actors aren’t much more nuanced than the ones you’d find a soap opera. Anna Karenina herself is incredibly unlikable, despite Keira Knightly’s adorable dimples and snaggletoothed smile. Jude Law seemed to be as bored with his role as I was. I found myself sighing every few minutes and looking at the floor. It’s obvious that the filmmakers were looking for an Oscar nomination—and they might get one for art direction or cinematography. But these things in and of themselves don’t make a movie worth watching.
I’ll admit, I might be a bit put off by the subject matter itself. Films and books about the wealthy elite at the turn of the century are, in my opinion, horrible. The focus on marriage, the importance of class distinction, the opulence of the lifestyle all bore me to tears. Worse still, the behavior of society people inspires in me revolutionary thoughts and daydreams of guillotines. Jane Austen and Edith Wharton were the worst parts of my undergraduate curriculum. Some films, “Gone With the Wind” for instance, manage to overcome my general hatred of the landed gentry, but both the film and the book are classics. “Anna Karenina,” at least as it is shown here, is decidedly not.