Anna Karenina: a forgettable and tedious adaptation

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – the opening sentence of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is a stunning classic of Russian literature. However, this latest adaptation of the novel fails to portray the sweeping, epic grandeur and the passionate emotion of the novel. As a fan of Russian literature and costume dramas, I wanted to like it but it was tedious and forgettable, to say the least. Starring Keira Knightley as a pouting Anna and directed by Joe Wright (who has directed Keira Knightley in two previous films – Pride and Prejudice in 2005 and Atonement in 2008), the filmmakers made an interesting choice to set this adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel in a theater.

It is an innovative way of filming a movie and there are certain scenes in which the choreography is very powerful, for example, a scene during a grand ball. When Anna and Count Vronsky are dancing together, the other couples on the dance floor freeze into stillness, motionless in the intricate positions of their dance. This creates a striking effect, with the focus immediately drawn to Anna and Vronsky.

However, Keira Knightley’s performance as Anna trips over its Russian full-skirted dress and falls flat. This is the third Joe Wright film in which she is the star actress and in the previous two, she was very good. Atonement, an adaptation of the novel by Ian McEwan, stands out as one of Knightley’s best performances (arguably, the best) to date. But in this, she lacks genuine emotion, other than a kind of hysterical infatuation for Vronsky. We are meant to truly believe that Anna and Vronsky give up everything to be together and have an all-consuming love but that really doesn’t come across and the film takes away the complexity of Tolstoy’s great work of literature.

The opulent costumes are spectacular and the theatrical sets in the movie are exquisite in their detail. But all that beauty left me feeling a little cold. It is the human stories which interest me and we need to see them portrayed in all their rawness and realism. In many scenes the theatrical device feels gimmicky and contrived, setting the audience apart from the action. For me, it dehumanized the characters and failed to draw me fully into the story. When a film fails to make you care about what happens to its characters, it is not to be recommended.

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8 thoughts on “Anna Karenina: a forgettable and tedious adaptation

  1. Interesting. I didn’t even know there was a movie, but this book has been on my list for a while now. In fact, I was just thinking it might be a good beach read while I’m here. Have you read it? If so, did you find it as “tedious and forgettable” as the movie?

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    • Hi there, thanks for commenting. ๐Ÿ™‚

      This is the most recent adaptation but there are a few other versions too.
      I read the book two years ago when I was on vacation. It is much, much better than the movie, certainly not “tedious and forgettable”. ๐Ÿ™‚ Tolstoy’s writing is full of complexity and there is a whole subplot about two other characters (Kitty and Levin) which is pretty much glossed over in the movie.

      I also think Keira Knightley was the wrong actress for the leading role of Anna. Anna’s character has so many different aspects to it in the book. Sometimes the reader hates her, sometimes the reader adores her. That’s part of the beauty of Tolstoy’s writing. But Knightley doesn’t reflect this complexity in her portrayal of Anna, in my opinion.

      Having said all that, some people love this adaptation and Keira Knightley as Anna. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. Let me know what you think if you see it or read the book.

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      • The books are almost always better than the movies, in my opinion, for two reasons: 1) the writer’s eloquent words simply cannot be portrayed on screen and 2) my imagination often creates better scenes than the movies do!

        I’ll let you know. It might be a summer read for me.

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        • Oh, I definitely agree. It’s especially noticeable when it’s a movie version of a classic like Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Very few adaptations come anywhere near to the essence of the original novel

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  2. I totally agree. I watched this movie last night and was so lost. Maybe you have to read the book first to get what’s going on. But it was awful. My friend and I were like “what is going on???”

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    • I think that it would definitely be confusing to someone who hasn’t read the book first. The movie jumped straight in without giving much back story to the characters and I don’t think the characters really developed throughout the movie, unlike the complex story in the book. Thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear I’m not the only one who dislikes it!

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