Lisa Marie’s Favorite Film of 2012: Anna Karenina (dir by Joe Wright)


For the most part, 2012 was a bland year as far as cinema is concerned.  The most acclaimed films of the year (Argo and Lincoln being two obvious examples) were well-made and often entertaining but they were hardly revolutionary.  2012 was the year that the establishment told us what we should enjoy and, for the most part, film critics slavishly hopped on the bandwagon.  As you can probably guess, 2012 was not my favorite year as far as the movies are concerned.  That said, there were a few films that gave me hope.  As the year ends, despite being underwhelmed by most of the films that were released, there are a few that I truly did love.

My favorite film of 2011 was a criminally underappreciated film from director Joe Wright.  That name of that film was Hanna.  My favorite film of 2012 is another criminally underappreciated film from director Joe Wright.  The name of this film?  Anna Karenina.*

History has a way of repeating itself.

Anna Karenina is, of course, based on the classic novel by Leo Tolstoy.  Anna Karenina (played, quite brilliantly, by Kiera Knightley) is the wife of the noble (but somewhat boring and judgmental) Russian statesman Alex Karenin (Jude Law, who is also quite brilliant and rather tragic in a role that, in lesser hands, could have become a stock villain).  When Anna’s good-for-nothing brother (played in a wonderfully comedic performance by Matthew MacFayden) is caught cheating on his wife, Anna leaves her safe home in St. Petersburg and travels to Moscow where she helps to save her brother’s marriage and meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Among the members of the Russian high society, it is well-known that Vronsky is pursuing the hand of the young and beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander, who generates a lot of sympathy for a character who, at the start of the film, could easily have been portrayed as just a spoiled brat).  However, at the ball where it is widely expected that Vronsky will ask Kitty to marry him, Vronsky creates a scandal by dancing with Anna instead.

Vronsky loses interest in Kitty and instead, he now obsessively pursues the married Anna.  Though Anna is resistant at first, she finally gives in and embarks on an adulterous affair with Vronsky, resulting in scandal and tragedy.

Again, history repeats itself.  The story of Anna Karenina is a familiar one that has been told repeatedly over the ages.  That’s one reason why Tolstoy’s novel has remained one of the greatest novels ever written and why it has been adapted into so many other mediums.  Director Joe Wright begins Anna Karenina with the assumption that the majority of the people in his audience already know the story of Anna’s ill-fated love affair with Vronsky.  As such, he puts less emphasis on the story itself and more on how the story is told.

Anna Karenina is a masterpiece of style.  When the film opens, Wright has his actors literally performing on a stage.  When Anna travels to Moscow, a miniature train is seen rolling across the stage.  When the scene changes from a factory to a high society ball, the factory workers walk backstage, change costumes, and then step back onstage, suddenly transformed into noblemen.  At one point, we even see a janitor nonchalantly cleaning up the now-empty theater while the story continues to play out on the stage in front of him.  When Anna and Vronsky dance for the first time, the other actors freeze in place and a spotlight shines down on the dancing couple.  It’s an amazingly romantic moment, one to which anyone who has ever been infatuated will be able to relate.  Finally, a door opens onstage and the characters (and the viewing audience) are able to step out into the “real” world but, throughout the film, we occasionally return to that stage.  While several critics have criticized this aspect of the film, I thought it was brilliant.  By literally putting his actors on stage, Wright both acknowledges that this is a story that may be familiar but can be interpreted in many different ways and he also drives home the point that, ultimately, we are all just actors on a stage, being observed and judged by a society that is often hostile to any sign of individual desire or unpredictable  emotion.

Needless to say, the film’s extreme stylization is not for everyone.  That’s actually one of the reasons that I love this version of Anna Karenina so much.  In a year that was almost excessively safe, Joe Wright took a risk and, as a result, encouraged us to look at a familiar story in a different way.  For that reason, Anna Karenina is my favorite film of 2012.

—-

* For the record, my second favorite film of 2012 was The Cabin In The Woods.

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9 responses to “Lisa Marie’s Favorite Film of 2012: Anna Karenina (dir by Joe Wright)

  1. Do you know what I want to see the film world do in 2013?

    I want to see it do something new.

    Nevermind doing something good, I just want to see somebody, somewhere, do something new. It can be the most rotten, awful film in existence, I don’t care, but somebody somewhere, do me a favour: try something new.

    I’m pretty much over superhero films. Unless somebody creates a new superhero. Now there would be a neat idea. Rather than just producing the 137th reincarnation of a relic from the 1930s, I’d love to see one of these “creative geniuses” (don’t worry, Christopher Nolan, nobody is looking at you) produce something new.

    Sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes…please, spare me. It’s time for something new.

    No more films about the end of the world. The Mayans fucked up. Time for something new.

    It doesn’t say much for 2012 that Lisa Marie Bowman’s favourite film was yet another cinematic interpretation of a book from the 19th century.

    If you love things like this, then you may wish to check out the 1969 Japanese tragedy “Double Suicide” by Masahiro Shinoda. Throughout the film, one can see stagehands dressed in black (“kuroko”) working around and with the players in the story. It’s basically a play within a film, with real people playing the roles of puppets in the play. I was extremely fortunate to catch it on 35mm print some time ago, and that leads me to another objection that I had regarding cinema in 2012: an overwhelming amount of the new stuff on offer was in digital format. Filmmakers of the world need to rebel against the digital craze. Vinyl records made a huge comeback in 2012. Celluloid can do the same in the future.

    But I really, really want somebody to show me something new.

    • I think every film fan wishes for that, but it always depends on what you mean as new.

      Unlike you I don’t worry too much about remakes, reboots, sequels, superhero and all the other types of films that comes out year in and year out. Now whether the quality of said films are great or not depends on the viewer.

      If I worried on whether 2013 will just be about all the aforementioned types of films then I limit my options and film fans, in my opinion, never try to limit themselves for fear of missing out on the rare gem in the ocean of crap.

      I know Lisa Marie doesn’t think of 2012 as being great cinematically but she still able to see and find the gems in a disappointing year.

      Maybe I’m an optimist when it comes to cinema for I hope for the best even when fearing the worst.

      As for digital film vs celluloid…who said one had to pick a side. This debate has gotten so polarizing that people become blind to the freedom both give filmmakers.

      If I had one wish for 2013 it’s for people to stop worrying and bitching about what’s wrong with the industry and embrace the good things about it.

      • egarding digital versus celluloid, there is one group of people who aren’t left with any freedom: the audience. And at the end of the day, with no audience, there is no industry.

        Arleigh, I know you probably don’t think it’s a big thing, but I’m certain that you’re aware of the “junking” of celluloid prints that is a direct upshot from the current digital craze. It’s turned out to be a real burden on nostalgia cinemas who pride themselves on showing 35mm and 70mm prints. Certain old school indy cinemas only stay open due to their novelty factor, appealing to those who prefer celluloid. When distributors meddle with the rights to 35mm and 70mm and then junk the prints, that can be the death knell for many a cinema trying to keep it old school.
        The Astor used to have a whole flock of Bond flicks on 35mm, Woody Allen flicks from the 1970s and 1980s on 35mm, loads of UA films, the “Dollars” films on 35mm, you name it. Also, I don’t believe that the digital things makes it any easier to make and distribute a film. That’s one of the biggest myths about digital film. Movies still cost millions to make. The tacked on expense of shipping 35mm prints is minor, really. The digital push is not coming from artists, but by bean counters who want to skimp and save on shipping film prints, storage, preservation, etc. And already, numerous cinemas have experienced technological gaffes with digital movies. It’s especially bothersome at film festivals. If a film fails to unlock, then it is either delayed or rescheduled or even cancelled, thus causing massive headaches for theatre staff and customers.

        Believe me when I say that I am actually one of the easiest going filmgoers around. At least 95 percent of the time, I can take SOMETHING away from a movie. But I don’t think it’s just films, it’s entertainment and the arts in general. In fact, it’s the whole of society.

        Anyway, if there’s one thing I want to see in 2013, it’s more people whine and bitch, because honestly, society is way too lax these days. That doesn’t mean hating everything. What it does mean is that the key word for 2013 ought to be “discerning”.

        P.S. I did see some rather impressive pictures in 2012–the only problem was that technically speaking, they were 2011 releases!

  2. PPS: To clarify, the digital thing wouldn’t be so much a problem if people WERE allowed to choose one or the other. They say that by the year 2015, all movies at commercial cinemas will be on digital (with the exception of nostalgia and perhaps “experimental” films, and as stated, a lot of the old film prints are being junked). I want to see new release films on 35mm, but how can I? You say “who said one had to pick a side?” Well, the industry says so, and that’s what I find objectionable. The decision is being made for us.

    • See this we can see eye to eye on. I’m all for celluloid if that’s the medium the filmmaker chooses. Unfortunately more and more filmmakers new and old switching to digital. Even Scorsese starting to use it more and more.

      As a film fan I’m all for preservation of the older 35mm prints and there are many film societies in the US that have been doing it. I can think of at least 20-30 groups in LA alone that do nothing but collect, restore and actually show the prints to the public.

      I just think that what we’re seeing now is the inevitable paradigm shift that the industry goes through every 30-40 years. From silent era to talkies. From black and white to color. Now with celluloid to digital.

      • Physically possessing the 35mm prints is one thing. Getting permission to screen them commercially (or even at a not-for-profit film society) in said format is something else. Confiscation and subsequent junking of film prints by the powers-that-be makes this practice extremely difficult.

        I did manage to see “Anna Karenina” at the cinema, as it is in the final days of its first-run (before it goes to its sub-run at places such as the Astor Theatre).

        Not surprisingly, it was in digital format, and I did enquire after the presentation as to whether the theatre still had 35mm projectors in the building (the answer being no). The staff member asked me if I can tell the difference between digital and film. I think you can guess the answer to that one.

        I must say that having neither read Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” nor seen any prior cinematic adaptation, I was not familiar with a lot of what happened (something tells me that Lisa Marie Bowman has actually read Tolstoy’s hefty tome). However, I did know that it would not offer a happy ending for the eponymous cuckoldress.

        Having re-read my original post in this forum, the line “It doesn’t say much for 2012 that Lisa Marie Bowman’s favourite film was yet another cinematic interpretation of a book from the 19th century” might possibly sound like a simultaneous indictment of Lisa Marie’s taste in cinema and a prejudgement of the motion picture itself.

        But I must confess, I was startled that Lisa Marie’s choice for “best film” of 2012 was one based upon source material so well-worn.

        Based upon its own merits, I must say that I was most engrossed by “Anna Karenina”. I do agree that the various devices mentioned by Lisa Marie (the extras frozen in place in the dancehall scene, having the players change in and out of costume on camera, much of the film taking place on a literal stage, et al) was most enthralling.

        Joe Wright wasn’t taking a risk when he accepted the task of helming a popular period piece based upon the work of someone with the reputation of Leo Tolstoy, but his interpretation was indeed bold and daring. As stated earlier, I’d not seen any film version of “Anna Karenina” before this one, but I imagine that without Wright’s unconventional approach, this one would have been interchangeable with so many others.

        Looking at Roger Ebert’s review, it doesn’t surprise me that he awards it a relatively modest two and a half stars. Ebert doesn’t like this sort of thing. But to be fair, Ebert knows more about the story than I do, and he’s obviously seen various film versions to draw a comparison (then again, I would imagine, so has Lisa Marie Bowman). Still, I’m not sure if I agree that the production upstages the story.

        As wonderful as “Anna Karenina” was, though, it still does make one wonder if anybody is writing new stories in the film world these days, which is closer to the spirit of the point I was trying to make in my original post. “Anna Karenina” is a story that has been done so many times in the realm of cinema. It’s wonderful that somebody can apply a new coat of paint to a well-worn tale, I just thought that there would have been many other films in 2012 that were both brilliant AND came from “new” sources.

  3. Pingback: Lisa Marie Picks The Best 26 Films of 2012 | Through the Shattered Lens

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  5. Pingback: Lisa Marie Picks The Best 26 Films of 2012 | Through the Shattered Lens

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