November 19, 2012

Anna Karenina: The Puppet Version


Anna Karenina: The Puppet Version

The movie is almost too silly to discuss, as if Saturday Night Live decided to do a parody, but nobody but the costume-director and scene-making crew were ready. A puppet resembling Keira Knightley plays Anna; although thin, even scrawny, the animators make her look almost human. (Sorry—my mistake! I checked the credits and discovered that the wooden doll is actually Keira Knightley.) Vronsky is played by a cute teenaged boy in what looks like a curly blond wig and a pasted-on dark moustache (again I’m mistaken: the actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson is 32).

If I were Russia’s ambassador to Great Britain, I would demand that the Queen rescind Sir Tom Stoppard’s knighthood for having contributed to the desecration of the greatest novel ever written; if Stoppard is ashamed of his collaboration with director Joe Wright, it’s not clear, perhaps only hinted at, in the published screenplay, wherein he explains:

“If this book were the shooting script, it would begin like this:

‘Much of the action takes place in a large, derelict nineteenth-century Russian theatre—not in the sense of ‘onstage’ only, but often in different parts of the theatre, e.g. the auditorium, the wings, backstage, the under-stage, the fly-tower, etc.” (Anna Karenina: The Screenplay, Vintage Books, 2012, p. vi).

Jude Law as Karenin plays the part interestingly if not accurately, and is the spitting image of some old illustrations. Because Anna and Vronsky are played so dull-wittedly, however, Law’s intensity overwhelms the scenes he shares with them. There is no way the real Anna would have left such a smoldering vigorous husband. Knightley and her director can’t even get the easiest tear-jerking scene in literature right: Anna’s surprise birthday-visit to Serozha. After a few moments, with scarcely a tear or even a blink, she leaves her supposedly beloved son in his bed when Karenin, out of the shadows, appears and glowers at her.

Levin and Kitty’s romance gets short shrift, which is too bad because the actors (Domhnal Gleeson and Alicia Vikander) are at least lively and attractive. Early on, however, Kitty flits about as if the director had mixed her up with Natasha of War and Peace. The great mowing scenes, filmed in the actual outdoors of the Salisbury Plain in southern England, are gorgeous and look as if they could have been filmed in Russia. (For some reason Wright represents Levin’s home as a kulak’s charming rustic cottage, and not how Tolstoy described it, which was based on the simple but modern house at his Yasnaya Polyana estate.) The most charming love scene in the novel, Levin’s proposal to Kitty by means of chalked initials, is idiotized into the two of them playing with blocks and actually spelling out the messages.

When Anna decides to die we are as moved as by the sight of a potted plant knocked over by a dog’s wagging tail. Afterward, her face--tasteful spots of blood dotting it—is as immobile and wooden as it was in life.

My wife, who is smarter and kinder than I am and who’s read Anna Karenina twice, liked this movie. I, however, felt like a religious person watching a non-believer satirizing a holy work. Such an action is so absurd and based on such fundamental perceptions, there’s no need to take it seriously. If you don’t know the novel on which this movie trounces, so much the better. If you’ve read it years ago and only vaguely remember it, you might just enjoy this new cinematic interpretation. If, however, you love and worship the novel, as I do, let’s skip the movie altogether and go read the book again.

 

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Lev Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has been called the greatest novel of all time. But can one really appreciate it as much in English translation versus the Russian original?
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