Review: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina With seven previous movie and two television adaptations under its belt, Anna Karenina has been a massively popular story since it was written by Leo Tolstoy in 1877. The story of a woman in Russian high society who decides to risk it all for an affair with a younger man clearly resonates with audiences and its not hard to imagine why. Director Joe Wright takes aim at putting his very own spin on the story, and what a spin it is. Wright’s version of Anna Karenina is beautifully shot and the world he portrays is quite unique.

Our story begins with a woman, Anna (Keira Knightley) who is of high society in 19th century Russia. She has a son and is married to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law). Alexi is a staunch and rigid man who lacks any ounce of passion. Their marriage is one of societal pressure and convenience hardly of love. This seeds the ground for Anna to look elsewhere for someone who can match her passion. Anna isn’t necessarily unhappy but she certainly isn’t happy; just floating through life from one empty and mundane moment to the next. Things begin to change however when Anna leaves her husband and son behind in St. Petersburg to take a trip to Moscow. While in Moscow she meets the younger and dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). From their very first glance their fates are sealed. Interconnected for a lifetime whether they wanted to admit it or not, circumstances be damned. Vronsky feeling simply overwhelmed with passion for Anna pursues relentlessly. Anna withdraws and Vronsky pursues further. The classic cat and mouse game was broken of its cliche feeling by Anna being honest in her hesitation. She was certainly not staying away from Vronsky for affect. She knew their relationship would destroy them both, and the lives of her son and husband would also hang in the balance. Unfortunately, love and passion have a way of ruining best laid plans and the two engage in a steamy affair. They become the very hushed talk of St. Petersburg. The age old question of how far are you willing to go for love is the overarching message here. Is Anna and Vronsky’s relationship worth it? Passion versus stability. Love versus status.

One element that simply cannot be ignored in this version is the transition and stage presence. Director Joe Wright shows the audience that they are watching a play inside of a film. I wasn’t aware that the film would be shot like this and it was a pleasant surprise. All the scene changes were comprised of curtain raises, manual furniture moving, and camera manipulation. This was baffling at first but after a mere few minutes you will adjust. The scenes themselves were well shot and lit perfectly. The costumes were absolutely breathtaking. High society in 19th century Russia was extravagant and whoever created the costumes did an excellent job reaffirming that.

The acting in the film was astounding. I have really enjoyed Keira Knightley’s move into more serious and indie roles like this. As of late, her work on A Dangerous Method and now Anna Karenina shows that long have the days past of Knightly showing up in a vapid romantic comedy. Her ability to portray the tortured soul of a woman conflicted was fantastic. As her life shifted from pure passion into a social death spiral Knightly conveys the human transition wonderfully. Alongside her is her stoic husband Alexi Karenin played by Jude Law. While known as a Hollywood handsome man, here he is anything but. A cold man whose looks are purposefully dulled to emphasize Count Vronsky’s charm and good looks. Law presents a case for the effects of stoicism, able to stay calm and stay the course in the face of a crumbling marriage and societal respect. The mirror opposite of Law’s stoicism was Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of Count Vronsky. The dashing cavalry man who steals the heart of Karenin’s wife is truly a likeable rogue. Taylor-Johnson makes Vronsky vulnerable, relatable, and in some ways a very sad character. He seems like a man who has everything that he wants but also he suffers from having no true agency. He is lead around by his mother and then by Anna. Rarely making true decisions for himself. Supporting roles of Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfayden) and his friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) gave the film a level of comedy and sweetness. Especially Gleeson’s role of a man who refused to give up on love and his rejection of being apart of Russia’s high society.

In conclusion, a true gem right before Oscar season. Anna Karenina plays to every period piece strength and almost none of their weaknesses. Helmed by a director who knows the genre all too well and starring actors who have really come into their own over the last few years. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s transition from a skinny crime fighter in Kick-Ass to a formidable drama star beginning with Albert Nobbs and now with Anna Karenina to Keira Knightley’s powerful performance I would not be surprised if Oscar nominations are laid at the feet of many people in this cast.

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Review: A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, is an inside view of the three people who were very much on the forefront of psychiatry in the early 1900s. The triangles of academic, as well as, social conflict were on full display between the main characters. Keira Knightley portrays Sabrina Spielrein, a Russian woman tortured with her own diagnosis of hysteria. Her young psychiatrist, Carl Jung, played by the seemingly omnipresent Michael Fassbender. Jung’s mentor is the world famous Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who counsels Jung in using “talking therapy” to help his patients, specifically Spielrein.

When the movie opens we are introduced to the Jung and his expecting wife. Jung’s relationship with her is very much one of necessity. It is made very clear that he is generally unhappy with his marital situation and just goes on with it out of the routine. Jung is a product of severe repression, but we will get to that later. Jung’s life as a psychiatrist is pretty standard for the times. The methods used are cold baths, straight-jacks, etc., yet Jung yearns to try a new method. A technique that has been created and documented by his mentor, Sigmund Freud. This method in question is transference. This is achieved by what we now know as modern day psychiatry; you sit on a couch and talk to the therapist who sits behind you.

While the talking therapy, as its referred, seems harmless on the face it takes on a life of its own in the hands of the inexperienced. Jung begins to use the talking therapy on his new patient, Sabrina, when she arrives at his facility. Knightley portrayal of Sabrina is extreme here. Whether the interpretation was Knightley alone or from some historical records she plays Sabrina to an extreme degree. Personally I liked the portrayal but I could see why some found it distracting and likely just Hollywood-esque overacting. Either way, it doesn’t last too long as Sabrina is brought into the normal world rather quickly. I would have preferred to see Sabrina’s recovery flushed out a little more here. Cronenberg seemed to be more focused on the love story and less on the psychiatry that sparked it all.

As Jung and Sabrina spend more time together you begin to see their relationship develop in slightly uncomfortable ways. This is the plays backdrop to Jung and Freud’s relationship that has moved past mentor-student levels and now into full father-son territory. Mortensen’s portrayal of the stern, sometimes funny, and charismatic Freud was a pleasure to watch. He steals every scene that he is in. Freud is such a complicated historical figure, and many have serious criticisms of his views. However, Mortensen plays him just right that you love and hate who he is. This, to me, is the best type of acting to watch. When an actor can make you feel for what seemingly are villains than they have accomplished something new entirely.

The sexual relationship that develops between Sabrina and Jung is one that I think might be exploited for Hollywood extras. Sabrina is presented in a manor of a sadomasochistic. There is not much in the historical documents to suggest this and I think its put there to get the audience into the story while simultaneously keeping it sexy. Ultimately Jung and Sabrina end their affair and Sabrina goes from a submissive character to very much a woman in control. Knightley seems to try and make up for the lackluster performance in the beginning here. She really shines when Sabrina is her own woman. This, in my opinion, is where Knightley is clearly more comfortable being. She is able to put on her best Russian accent and stand toe to toe with Fassbender and Mortensen. Sometimes overshadowing their stellar performances.

Even with Knightley really coming alive in the second half of the film, Fassbender and Mortensen are the standouts here. Their relationship/rivalry is something to watch. I could watch the build up and break down of their friendship over and over again. The aforementioned skill the Mortensen displayed makes me want to see a solo film about Freud played by him. Mortensen is very comfortable in this role from the first time you see him and his quotes and etched in to my mind. Fassbender is no slouch either. He gives us a Carl Jung who is as repressed as they come. Never really being apart of his own life, but rather just living in his work, Jung is distant and yet carries on seemingly intimate relationships with those around him. Fassbender plays Jung completely straight. He never gives you the feeling that Jung has it under control. Rather that he is a wild animal waiting to get out but all he needs is the permission…from himself. The animalistic tendencies are not just in the hypersexual realm. He also seeks this permission to challenge the system, Sigmund Freud.

[easyreview title= "Review of A Dangerous Method" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]