Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Tom Stoppard (screenplay), Leo Tolstoy (novel)
Other cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Release date: 23 January 2013 (Premiere)
Premiere date: 7 September 2012 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running time: 2h 9min
In 1874, in the Imperial Russia, the aristocratic Anna Karenina travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to save the marriage of her brother Prince Oblonsky, who had had a love affair with his housemaid. Anna Karenina has a cold marriage with her husband, Count Alexei Karenin, and they have a son. Anna meets the cavalry officer Count Vronsky at the train station and they feel attracted by each other. Soon she learns that Vronsky will propose to Kitty, who is the younger sister of her sister-in-law Dolly. Anna satisfactorily resolves the infidelity case of her brother and Kitty invites her to stay for the ball. However, Anna Karenina and Vronsky dance in the ball, calling the attention of the conservative society. Soon they have a love affair that will lead Anna Karenina to a tragic fate.
Anna Karenina is a 2012 British historical romance film directed by Joe Wright. Adapted by Tom Stoppard from Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel of the same name, the film depicts the tragedy of Russian aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina, wife of senior statesman Alexei Karenin, and her affair with the affluent officer Count Vronsky which leads to her ultimate demise. Keira Knightley stars in the lead role as Karenina, marking her third collaboration with Wright following both Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), while Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson appear as Karenin and Vronsky, respectively. Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander appear in key supporting roles.
Produced by Working Title Films in association with StudioCanal, the film premiered at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival. It was released on 7 September 2012 in the United Kingdom and Ireland and on 9 November 2012 in the United States. Anna Karenina earned a worldwide gross of approximately $69 million, mostly from its international run. It earned a rating of 64 percent from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, labelling it generally favourable. Critics praised the cast, but commented on and criticised the heavily stylised adaptation, and were less enthusiastic with Wright’s preference for style over substance and his idea of setting most of the action on a theatre stage.
It earned four nominations at the 85th Academy Awards and six nominations at the 66th British Academy Film Awards, winning Jacqueline Durran both prizes for Best Costume Design. In addition, Anna Karenina garnered six nominations at the 17th Satellite Awards, including a Best Actress nod for Knightley and Best Adapted Screenplay for Stoppard. (Source)
The film begins in 1874 at the height of Imperial Russia. It starts at the house of Prince Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) in Moscow. His wife, Princess Daria “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald), catches Stiva and the governess of their five children having sex in a closet, having found the governess’ note to her husband. Dolly tearfully banishes Stiva out of the home, forbidding him to ever see her or their children again.
Stiva’s sister, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), journeys to Moscow. Anna is a wealthy, well-liked socialite who lives in St. Petersburg with her older husband Alexi Karenin (Jude Law), a Russian statesman, and their son Serozha. She has arrived at her brother’s request to attempt to convince Dolly to forgive Stiva. Karenin allowed her to leave but warns her about fixing the problems of others. Anna ignores this and goes to Moscow anyway, leaving behind her son Serozha who wants her to stay.
Meanwhile, Stiva meets his old friend Konstatin Dimitrivich Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a wealthy land owner in the country. Levin is looked down on by most of Moscow’s elite society due to his distaste for city living. Levin professes his love to Stiva’s sister-in-law, Katerina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky (Alicia Vikander), and Stiva encourages him to propose to Kitty. However, Kitty declines his offer. It is later implied that she refused Levin’s offer because she would rather marry Count Alexi Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), which would make her a wealthy Countess socialite like Anna.
Anna, while on a train to Moscow, meets Vronsky’s mother, Countess Vronskaya (Olivia Williams), known throughout Russia as an adulteress. Levin meets up with his elder brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), who, like Levin, is an aristocrat, but has given up his inheritance to live the life of a wastrel. Nikolai lives with a prostitute named Masha whom he has taken as his wife and suggests to Levin that he should marry one of the peasants working at his estate. Levin then returns to his country estate in Pokrovskoe.
Anna arrives in Moscow and meets Count Vronsky, and they have an immediate and mutual attraction. As they prepare to leave, a railroad worker is caught beneath train tracks and is violently killed. Vronsky, to impress Anna, decides to give money to the deceased man’s family.
Anna convinces Dolly to take Stiva back. At a ball that night, Kitty is radiant and dances with many aristocratic men. As Kitty must dance with the officers and gentlemen who have filled her dance card, she attempts to dance with Vronsky but he prefers to dance with Anna. Their attraction is noticed by everyone, including an upset Kitty; Anna notices this, and decides to leave the ball, feeling she has upstaged Kitty. Anna boards a train bound back to St. Petersburg, but at a rest stop notices Vronsky, who declares that he must be where she is at every moment. She tells him to go back to Moscow, but he refuses, saying he cannot and will follow her anyway.
In St. Petersburg, Vronsky visits his friends along with his cousin Princess Betsy Tverskaya (Ruth Wilson) who is mutual friends with Anna and Karenin. Vronsky begins to show up at all the places Anna and Betsy visit; Anna is clearly amused, but also ashamed because now all of her high society friends are starting to notice their attraction. During a party held by Betsy, Vronsky believes Anna to have not attended due to him and leaves the party, only to miss Anna, who arrives late. Betsy informs Anna that Vronsky has left, so she need not worry about a scandal. However, Vronsky returns and starts to flirt with Anna openly. The party guests gossip behind their backs, which soon catches Karenin’s attention; He suggests they go home at once, but Anna decides to stay. Vronsky threatens to take a promotion in another city but Anna requests that he stay. Anna arrives home and speaks with her husband about Vronsky. She denies there is any attraction, convinces him of her innocence and they go to bed. The next day Anna and Vronsky meet at a hotel and make love.
Back at Levin’s country estate, Stiva visits, where he tells Levin that Kitty and Vronsky are no longer getting married. Still heartbroken, Levin has decided to give up on love and instead focus on living an authentic country life. He plows his fields with his workers and has thoughts of taking one of his workers’ daughters as his wife, like his brother had suggested.
Karenin hears word that both his wife and her lover are in the country and decides to surprise her there at his country estate. Anna reveals to Vronsky that she is pregnant and she wishes to be his and only his. While retreating back to her country house she encounters Karenin who suggests he join her for the horse races that evening. All of Russian society is at the races, and Anna sits with the elite. Countress Vronskaya, upon hearing the rumors of her son and Anna, gives Anna a disgusted look and instead gives her attention to the young Princess Sorokina (Cara Delevingne). The races begin and Karenin notices Anna acting oddly whenever Vronsky is racing. Anna unintentionally airs her feelings for Vronsky publicly when his horse collapses and is injured and she overreacts. On their way home Anna confesses to Karenin that she is indeed Vronsky’s mistress and wishes to divorce him. Because of St. Petersburg’s conservative-hypocritical elite, and the fact that divorce in Russia calls for public humiliation for either one of the spouses, he refuses and instead has her confined to their house to keep up appearances. Vronsky demands she gets a divorce from her husband and Anna, despite knowing the difficulties, says they will find a way. (In old Russian tradition, divorces can only occur if one of the spouses disappear for a long time or if either one is cheating; if divorce is for the latter reason, the innocent spouse must show proof of the other spouse’s infidelity. The unfaithful spouse, once divorced, will not be allowed to keep custody of any child she/he had had with the first spouse and will not be allowed to marry a second time.)
As Levin is plowing his field one morning he sees a carriage with Kitty, and returns to Moscow to insist to Stiva that he must marry her. Anna, starting to show her pregnancy, receives Vronsky at her house in St. Petersburg, and berates him and curses him for not coming to her sooner. Vronsky, shocked at this new temper in Anna, replies only that he was doing his duties as an Officer. Soon Karenin comes back home to find out that Vronsky has been visiting Anna though he was forbidden to be in the house or near his wife.
He searches Anna’s desk and finds love letters. Now with evidence of Anna’s infidelity, he declares that he will divorce her, keep their son, and drive her out into the street. Anna begs for her son to be with her, but Karenin enraged with anger shouts out that he would never allow his son be with an adulteress mother. Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty are reunited at the Oblonsky house for dinner. There, Karenin arrives to give news that he is divorcing Anna, much to the dismay of Stiva and Dolly. Anna begs Karenin to forgive her, but Karenin has made up his mind, even though it is obvious that he still loves Anna. After the dinner, Levin and Kitty confess their love to each other and eventually marry.
Karenin gets a note that Anna has gone into premature labor and is dying. Karenin tears the card and returns home. As Anna lies dying, Karenin sees that she has confessed her sins before God and that she was in the wrong. Vronsky is there at her side, and she again berates him and tells him that he could never be the man Karenin is. Karenin feeling ashamed at how he has treated Anna, begs for her forgiveness. Anna forgives him. The next day Vronsky leaves at the request of Karenin. Karenin forms an attachment to Anna’s baby Anya. He cradles her and watches over as if she was his child. Princess Betsy calls on Anna and discusses with her what will happen to Vronsky now that he has left St. Petersburg and has gone back to Moscow. Anna notices that Karenin is in the doorway and invites him in. She tells Betsy to tell Karenin everything she has told her.
Karenin comes back to see Anna in tears and in rage. Anna tells him that she wished she would have died instead now she has to live with Karenin and still hear about and see Vronsky wherever she goes, and even more so with her bastard daughter from him. Karenin assures her that they will indeed be happy together again, but Anna only wants Vronsky. Karenin still does not agree to a divorce but releases Anna from her confinement. Anna informs Vronsky through a telegraph and the two leave to Italy along with little Anya. Levin and Kitty return to Levin’s country estate where all his servants and attendees are enchanted with his new wife.
Levin’s maid informs him that Nikolai and his wife Masha are in the country and seek solitude because Nikolai is sick and will probably not live much longer. Having told Kitty about his brother and the situation with his wife Masha, Levin feels Kitty will be alarmed and outraged. However he is mistaken and Kitty dutifully asks that his brother and wife and join them in their country estate and that she will nurse him. Levin is shocked but he starts to notice that she has indeed grown up and is living for others instead of herself.
Word has gotten to Countess Lydia that Anna and Vronsky have returned to St. Petersburg. Anna writes Countess Lydia to see if she can intervene so that she may see Serozha for his birthday. Anna wakes her son to professes her love for him and that she was wrong to leave him. However, she tells him that he must come to love his Father, for he is good and kind, and is far better than she will ever be. Karenin sees Anna and motions for her to leave. Anna returns to Vronsky’s hotel room.
Vronsky arrives late, and Anna starts to believe that he is fooling around. Anna whips up her courage to attend the Opera, proclaiming that she is not ashamed for what she has done, and neither should Vronsky. Anna attends the Opera and the attendees look at her with disgust and amusement. She starts to understand that society is still not accepting of her or Vronsky. One of the other attendees then starts a ruckus and verbally insults Anna. All of the Opera house sees the commotion, including Vronsky. Anna is humiliated, but retains her poise, but cries back at the hotel. Vronsky rushes to her, and she yells at him and asks him why he did not stop her from going. Vronsky tries to settle the situation by giving her laudanum with water. The next day Anna has lunch at a restaurant where the society women there ignore her and go out of their way to avoid her. Dolly grabs a seat next to her and tells Anna that Kitty is pregnant and is in Moscow to have the baby. Dolly explains that Stiva is the same, but that she has come to love him for who he is, and that she misses Anna. As Anna arrives at the Hotel, Vronsky is reading a letter, but then hides it. Anna informs Vronsky that she doesn’t want to think about a divorce or anything only that she loves him and that wherever he goes she shall go with him. Vronsky informs her that he must meet with his mother one last time to settle some accounts, but when Anna sees that Princess Sorokina has come by the hotel to pick him up to send him to his mother’s, Anna starts to lose her grip on reality. She drinks more laudanum, and asks her maid to dress her. Anna goes by train to see if Vronsky is truly with his mother.
As she stops from station to station she thinks of her son, her daughter, Karenin, and has a hallucination of Vronsky and Princess Sorokina making love, and laughing about her. At the last station, Anna yells out, “God forgive me!” as she jumps on the tracks and into the path of an oncoming train.
Levin, still shocked and amazed at Kitty’s kind heart and willingness to have helped his brother, realizes that love while immature in the beginning can grow into something more beautiful and more earnest. He also starts to believe that fate is indeed the working of God, and how God truly has blessed him with Kitty and now with a son. He returns home in the rain to find Kitty giving their newborn son a bath. He tells her that he just realized something. Kitty asks him what is, and Levin cradling his baby boy in his arms looks at her, with tears in his eyes and says that someday he will tell her. Oblonsky and his family eat with Levin and Kitty, and Oblonsky looking weary and sad, goes outside lights a cigarette and seems to be crying. It can be implied that he is mourning his sister, or that he is indeed happy and will give up his old life as an adulterer. Karenin is seen to be happily retired from public duties. Serozha and Anya, now a toddler, are seen playing among the daisies growing in the field.
Upon its release, the film received mildly positive reviews from critics, with some praising the cast – particularly Knightley – and the production design, but criticising the script and Wright’s apparent preference for style over substance. The film received a positive review score of 63% according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Metacritic reported an average score of 63 out of 100, based on 41 reviews and classified the film as “generally favorable”.
Oliver Lyttleton of The Playlist awarded the film a B+ and called the picture a “bold reimagining” of the classic novel, comparing Wright’s vision to the films of Powell and Pressburger. He noted how Knightley “continues to go from strength to strength” and also praised Law as “excellent”. Even though he speculated that “the film is going to divide people enormously”, he concluded it was one to “cherish despite its flaws”. Ian Freer of Empire awarded the film four stars out of five and was effervescent in his praise for Wright and the final result: he said “Anna Karenina militantly doesn’t want to be just another costume drama; it attacks the heavyweight concerns of Russian literature (hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, the pastoral vs. the urban, huge moustaches) with wit and verve; most exciting of all, it is filmmaking of the highest order, channeling every other art form from painting to ballet to puppetry while remaining completely cinematic”. He lauded the entire cast for their work yet concluded that “this is really its director’s movie”.
In The Observer Jason Solomons also called Knightley “superb”, and declared that the film “works beautifully…[it is] elegant and exciting [and] …incredibly cinematic”. Leslie Felperin of Variety was more reserved in her praise for the film, observing that although Wright “knows how to get the best from Knightley” and noting that the film was technically “glorious”, it was also “unmistakably chilly” in the storytelling. The Daily Mirror singled out Knightley as “excellent” and lauded Wright for “offer[ing] a fresh vision of the Tolstoy classic”, concluding the picture to be “with its beautiful cinematography and costumes… a real success”.
Others were less impressed with the film and Wright’s take on such a classic text. The Hertfordshire Mercury conceded that “costumes and art direction are ravishing, and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography shimmers with rich colour”, but ultimately found there to be “no obvious method behind this production design madness”.Stella Papamichael of Digital Spy also awarded the picture only two stars out of five, commenting that “the third time isn’t such a charm for director Joe Wright and muse Keira Knightley”. Although she found the actress “luminous in the role” she criticised Wright for “outshining” his star and affecting the narrative momentum by “favouring a glossy look over probing insights into a complicated character”. Neil Smith of Total Film also awarded the film two out of five stars, lamenting the fact that Wright’s elaborate stage design “pull[s] the attention away from where it should be… [and] keeps [us] at arm’s length, forever highlighting the smoke, mirrors and meticulous stage management that have been pressed into service to make his big idea a reality”. He also dismissed Knightley’s performance as “less involving” than her “similar” turn in The Duchess. Richard Brody of The New Yorker criticised Wright for diverging from Tolstoy, without adding anything beyond superficialities in return: “Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.”
Trivia & Goofs
- Inspired by Orlando Figes’ 2002 production of Natasha’s Dance, Joe Wright adopted an experimental approach to convey the essence of the story. The majority of the film was shot on a run down theater built from scratch in Shepperton. Locations such as skating rink, train station, horse stables were dressed on top of the theater. To create fluid linearity, doors are used to lead to Russian landscapes or some actors will walk from one set to another set under the stage. For cutaway wide exterior shots, toy trains and doll houses were used for filming. The only main cast member who is allowed to be venture out of the theater is Domhnall Gleeson (Levin) because Wright wanted to amplify the fact that Levin is the only authentic character in the group that reflects with the real world.
- Some modern audience members have been confused by the object that Karenin (Jude Law) takes out of a small, oblong box in his and Anna’s bedroom several times during the movie. This is a condom; for most of the history of contraception, condoms were made of animal- or plant-based materials (such as chemical-treated linen or sheep intestines or bladders), and they were not disposable (being rather expensive, they were often washed and reused). The first vulcanized rubber condoms were produced in the mid-1800s, but they were thick and unwieldy, so it is not unlikely that someone of Karenin’s wealth and societal stature would still be using a reusable condom by the time of the setting of this story.
- One of Alicia Vikander’s favorite experiences from the production was the filming that took place in the countryside outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. The temperatures soared below -40 °C, and she stayed in a cabin for five days that didn’t have hot water and only featured benches instead of beds. Meanwhile, Russian security guards protected her and co-star ‘Domhnall Gleeson’ from wild wolves and bears that dominated the deserted area.
- Joe Wright briefly considered having the actors use Russian accents but later decided against it thinking it would be hard for him to assess their performances.
- The song that Masha (‘Tannishtha Chatterjee’) hums and sings when she and Kitty are taking care of Nikolai is a Bengali (a language spoken in Bangladesh and the West Bengal part of India) lullaby. Tannishtha Chatterjee is in fact a Bengali.
- The soundtrack for several of the country scenes makes use of a Russian folk song that was also adapted (but without the words) by Tchaikovsky in his Fourth Symphony, written in the same period as was Tolstoy’s novel.
- James McAvoy (Levin), Saoirse Ronan (Kitty), Cate Blanchett (Countess Lydia), Benedict Cumberbatch (Oblonsky), and Andrea Riseborough (Princess Betsy), all of whom had worked with Joe Wright before, turned down roles in the film. They were replaced, respectively, by Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Emily Watson, Matthew Macfadyen, and Ruth Wilson.
- Saoirse Ronan was offered the role of Kitty but turned it down in order to star in Byzantium (2012) and The Host (2013). Her reasoning for turning down the film was its long production schedule which would have required her to turn down movie roles from Fall 2011 to late Spring 2012 in order to film what would have ended up as a supporting role. By turning down the role, she was able to take the lead role in two films. She was replaced by Alicia Vikander.
- Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson ended up starring together in Ex Machina (2015).
- The movie opens in “1875 Imperial Russia”. A few minutes later, a self-propelled model train is seen in action. Clockwork model trains were first introduced by the pioneering German toy company Marklin in 1891.
- The label of the bottle of morphine Anna drinks from changes from “la Morphine” to “Morphine” between shots. The only correct French form would be without an article (prescriptions would have been written in Latin in 19th-century Russia anyway).
- Throughout the film every time Anna’s son’s name is spoken, it is uniformly mispronounced in four syllables using some wrong phonemes, whereas in Russian his name has three syllables.
- (at around 32 mins) While Anna is traveling on a train she was reading a book which was supposed to be in Russian. However, the word that appeared on the screen was in Hungarian “olajfestmény” meaning oil painting.
The World premiere of ‘Anna Karenina’ took place on September 4, in London. Alicia attended, wearing a beautiful Gucci gown.
On November 7, Alicia attended the ‘Anna Karenina’ special screening in New York City. One week later, on November 14, she attended the Los Angeles premiere alongside cast-mates Keira Knightley, Domhnall Gleeson and more.