A Very Literary Christmas – Part II

Winter Night

Public domain photo by Christine Maklouf

Winter is the perfect time for curling up with a tome of Russian literature. Well, it would be if this weather wasn’t so unseasonably warm for the time of year — barely a hint of frost, let alone snow. I don’t think we’ll be having a white Christmas!

One of my favourite pieces of Russian literature is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. You may know it better as the famous 1965 movie, but the book far surpasses the movie. Set against the backdrop of early twentieth century Russia, Doctor Zhivago tells the story of a young doctor and poet, Yuri Zhivago, and his struggles with life, his love for two women, and politics and ideology during unstable times.

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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.