Studio: Universal/Focus Features/Working Title
Release Year: 2012
Length: 2 hrs 10 mins
Genre: Russian Period Drama/Romance/Theatrical Approach
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
BD Resolution and Codec: 1080p, VC-1 (@ an average 33 mbps)
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 3.6 mbps, up to 4.2 during big scenes), Spanish DTS 5.1, English DVS
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Film Rating: R (Some Sexuality and Violence)
Release Date: February 19, 2013
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson
Screenplay by: Tom Stoppard
Based on the Novel by: Leo Tolstoy
Directed by: Joe Wright
Review Rating: 2 ½/5
Anna Karenina is a real head-scratcher of a movie, when you get down to it. The central story is not that complicated – it’s an examination of the aspects of love in 19th century Russia, as seen in the forbidden affair of married aristocrat Anna (Keira Knightley) and a cavalry officer, and in the more acceptable bond that forms between wealthy landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and a young woman who grows to accept him. This is a classic tale of romance and tragedy, occurring in the setting of an opulent and stratified society, and it’s been told many times before. The current production is actually the thirteenth feature film to be made from the Tolstoy novel, and that’s not counting the television and stage adaptations. So it’s understandable that director Joe Wright did not wish to just make “another” adaptation of the novel. However, Wright’s choice of presentation is downright baffling. Wright’s conceit has been to place nearly the entirety of Anna’s story within the confines of a 19th century theater, with many scenes played on the stage where the side angles look into the backstage area. Levin’s story initially takes place in the same theater but as his story diverges from Anna’s, he is seen to actually walk out into a realistic exterior environment. There are interesting thematic ideas being presented here – of Russian aristocratic society being seen as an artificial one where appearances trump reality, of the intense theatricality of Tolstoy’s story, of even the notion of commenting on the artificiality of a modern production in English of a period Russian novel. But these are ideas that would find better use in a thesis paper or perhaps a college stage production. Perhaps even a student film could do some of these things on a very small scale. But Joe Wright, who is quite a talented director, has chosen to use the thesis paper approach to mount a major feature film. And that’s where the train, excuse the pun, leaves the tracks. An early-ish scene set in a governmental office where the clerks all do a kind of ballet with the rubber stamps and both an accordionist and a tuba player walk through the shot while playing their part in the score, is but one example of Wright’s approach.
The result of the deliberately artificial approach and the emphasis on form over the content is that many scenes actually push the viewer away rather than encouraging empathy. There’s almost a Brechtian aspect to this movie – in that the movie keeps telling the viewer that what is being shown is not real, thus encouraging a more clinical reaction than an emotional one. And this is clearly the intent – Joe Wright is too skilled of a filmmaker to have a result like that happen by accident. Of course, the production and the presentation are top notch. The production design and the wardrobe are truly stunning to behold. (It was not a surprise to see Costume Designer Jaqueline Durran receive an Academy Award for her work on this film.) The cast is also strong, throwing themselves into this approach with remarkable enthusiasm. Keira Knightley and Jude Law lead the group, but there are some great performances from multiple corners, including Matthew Macfadyen and Olivia Williams. It’s just that the final result is less than the sum of the parts. The viewer is left with less of a sense of the tragedy of what has occurred than a kind of clinical remove from the entire affair. People wishing to engage in a philosophical debate about the nature of love in Tolstoy’s Russia will probably find much food for thought here. More casual viewers who simply enjoy the movies of Joe Wright and Keira Knightly will probably be less satisfied. And viewers who have never read the Tolstoy novel will likely be completely confused.
Anna Karenina was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 19th. The Blu-ray edition contains high definition picture and audio of the movie, along with a commentary, some deleted scenes, nearly thirty minutes of featurettes and a time-lapse video detailing the the set construction. The Blu-ray comes with the DVD included in the package, as well as instructions for obtaining digital or ultraviolet copies. The DVD contains all the same material as the Blu-ray, albeit in standard definition.
VIDEO QUALITY 4 ½/5
Anna Karenina is presented in a 2.40:1 1080p VC-1 encode that presents the movie in the best possible light. Detail can be seen in the many intricate costumes and even in the darkest recesses of the stage setting. If anything, the high definition picture reveals even more of the deliberate artificiality of the painted backdrops and the theatrical conventions. Colors are quite striking throughout as a deliberate statement of design, and this transfer shows them all off to dazzling effect.
AUDIO QUALITY 4 ½/5
Anna Karenina gets a solid English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, which both emphasizes the stage setting and adds in additional sounds to suggest a larger world. There is a 5.1 DTS mix in Spanish, as well as an English DVS mix.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3 ½/5
Anna Karenina comes with a fair amount of extras: a commentary with Joe Wright, some deleted scenes, several featurettes and a time-lapse motion study of the set construction and repeated conversions over the course of the production. All of the special features are available both on the Blu-ray and on the DVD.
Commentary with Director Joe Wright – Joe Wright provides another one of his thorough discussions about his process and intentions. (Wright notes right off the bat that he’s essentially picking up where he left off after the commentary for Hanna…) Wright discusses his intentions behind the notion of setting the nearly the whole production inside the theater, and the point of the divergence between the stories of Anna and Levin. He is generous in his discussion about the actors’ contributions, noting the various subtleties in their performances.
Deleted Scenes (13:08 Total, 480p, Anamorphic) – Eight deleted scenes are presented here in standard definition. Nearly all of them are just additional glimpses of Anna or added character moments with the minor characters. Levin’s story gets fleshed out a bit more here, but it isn’t anything that the completed film truly needed. The scenes can be viewed individually or via a “Play All” option. The odd thing here is that the deleted material, unlike the featurettes, is presented only in standard definition.
Anna Karenina: An Epic Story About Love (4:54, 1080p) – This featurette provides a general overview of the story and the enthusiasm for the production shown by Joe Wright, his cast and his designers.
Adapting Tolstoy (5:12, 1080p) – This featurette focuses on the work by both Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard to bring the novel to the screen for the umpteenth time. The decision to place the production inside a theater is addressed as having been a nearly last-minute change-up, but one that actually did not affect the screenplay as such. Stoppard and the designers express approval of this change in adding to the unique nature of this production. Wright describes his approach here as being a nod back to his roots in puppet theater.
Keira as Anna (4:25, 1080p) – This is a kind of love letter to the work of Keira Knightley, who has now worked with Joe Wright on multiple productions. Both Wright and Knightley offer observations, as do the other cast members about working with her.
On Set With Director Joe Wright (5:05, 1080p) – This featurette focuses on the directorial style of Joe Wright, including his method of starting a production with weeks of rehearsals with the actors.
Dressing Anna (3:26, 1080p) – This short featurette is appropriate, given that the production just won an Academy Award for the work of this department. Designer Jaqueline Durran discusses the look of the wardrobe, as does Joe Wright. Durran notes that Wright asked for a composite silhouette for many of the women’s costumes, adopting a 19th Century hoop skirt look for the lower part of the dresses and a 1950s slim look to the upper half – thus giving the cast more freedom in their ability to move and breathe while maintaining a period appearance.
Time-Lapse Photography (8:16, 1080p) – A camera placed up in the permanence of the stage captures multiple looks of the theater set as it is prepared, initially lit and filmed, and then repeatedly reset to different specifics over the course of the production.
DVD – The DVD edition of the movie is included in the packaging. The DVD contains both editions of the movie in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound (@ 448 kbps), along with all the special features in standard definition. The DVD also has a separate “Previews” menu, containing trailers for Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Jane Eyre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Debt, The Eagle, Elizabeth, and One Day.
Digital/Ultraviolet Copy – The packaging has an insert that contains instructions for downloading a digital or ultraviolet copy of the movie. The other side of the insert is an advertisement for both soundtrack releases.
The movie is subtitled in English, Spanish and French. The usual pop-up menu is present, including a complete chapter menu.
IN THE END...
Anna Karenina is a truly frustrating experience. On the one hand, it’s a brilliant production, mounted by some really talented people both on camera and off and presented by Joe Wright, a remarkable director with a great track record. On the other hand, it’s a baffling exercise in aesthetics over storytelling that would better be suited for a classroom discussion than the production of a major motion picture. The Blu-ray release presents the movie in the best possible light, with great picture and sound. Fans of the Tolstoy novel, as well as fans of Joe Wright and Keira Knightley, may wish to rent this to see how they feel about the latest approach to the novel. More casual fans, particularly those who have not read the novel, should be a lot more cautious.
March 2, 2013
Equipment now in use in this Home Theater:
Panasonic 65” VT30 Plasma 3D HDTV – set at “ISF-Night” picture mode
HDTV Calibrated in June 2012 by Avical
Denon AVR-3311Cl Receiver
Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray Player
PS3 Player (used for calculation of bitrates for picture and sound)
5 Mirage Speakers (Front Left/Center/Right, Surround Back Left/Right)
2 Sony Speakers (Surround Left/Right – middle of room)
Martin Logan Dynamo 700 Subwoofer
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