Why can’t Russians write happy stories?

Overheard at the theatre ticket counter on Saturday night:

Ticket seller #1: “Wait, Anna Karenina is a book? Really?”

My friend: “Yeah. It was written by Tolstoy.”

“Ticket seller #1: “Who?”

Ticket seller #2: “Isn’t Les Mis a musical or something from Broadway?”

My friend’s response (after we’d walked away) to ticket seller #1: “Okay, I can understand not knowing that Anna Karenina was a book. But not knowing who Tolstoy is? I didn’t start reading Russian literature until college, but even I knew who Tolstoy was in high school. Are these the kids who’ll be shaping our country’s future? Jesus!”

A bit much, I think, but she does have a point. It’s pretty sad when kids grow up thinking a movie is based on a stage musical and are completely unaware said stage musical is based on a book.

Anyway. Anna Karenina. Gorgeous, gorgeous Anna Karenina. Oh, this was a beautiful film.

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While I had heard of the book prior to seeing the film (unlike our unfortunate ticket seller) I wasn’t familiar with the story. Since it was Russian, I figured it would be depressing, tragic, and someone, or multiple someones, would die at the end.

Anna (the lovely Keira Knightly) rushes off to convince her sister-in-law, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) to forgive her brother (Matthew MacFayden!) for his dalliances with the governess. On her journey, she encounters Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who becomes infatuated with her from that first meeting. The two soon engage in an affair, and in 19th century Russia, there are consequences when a member of the aristocracy engages in a scandal. Torment, lust, and threats ensue, leading us to the aforementioned tragic ending.

Director Joe Wright chose to stage Anna Karenina in a highly stylized manner. While sticking with the vividness and opulence of the aristocracy of Russia, the set was, in a strange way, minimal. Utilizing an old theatre for much of the film, the stage becomes Anna’s house, her brother’s house, a ball room, a race course, and an opera house, and the catwalks above become the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Anna Karenina, film of weekOftentimes, I felt like I was watching a ballet. Each movement was intricately choreographed, the opening scenes precise and economical. Doors are opened and closed in concert; the stamping of forms akin to the rhythm of a machine. The ballroom scene, where Kitty witnesses Vronsky’s pursuit of Anna, whirls by in a confusion of limbs, to the point where you lose track of who her dance partner is. Each and every gesture, every costume, is a symbol for something else.

As enchanting as she looked, this wasn’t my favorite Knightly performance. It probably had something to do with the character – Anna is a selfish, paranoid bitch. I had a hard time feeling anything other than dislike for her. But Jude Law, as Karenin, was understated and contained, a nice counterpoint to the gregariousness of Matthew MacFayden as Oblonsky, Anna’s brother. It was a welcome change for me, since most of what I’ve seen the man in he’s been, well, understated and contained. Morose, even.

I had an even harder time with Aaron Taylor-Johnson. When he first appeared onscreen, I was a bit appalled. He looks so frickin’ young, and pretty. Too pretty. The mustache didn’t help much, either. Over the course of the film, though, he grew on me – Vronsky’s love for Anna is sorely tested, sometimes by Anna herself, and he pulls off the patient yet frustrated lover with skill.

But what you’d watch this film for is the way it’s filmed. The story is second to the bright colors and exact movements of the actors as they move from scene to scene. You lose yourself in the swirling chaos of the dance Wright’s created with Anna Karenina, and when the final shot pans out, back to the empty theatre, you feel the urge to tiptoe out and let the silence continue on behind you. Because maybe, if you don’t disturb them, they’ll keep on dancing.

4 thoughts on “Why can’t Russians write happy stories?

  1. Started off so perfectly with a quick and beautiful pace, but then just loses itself by the end and gets way, way too boring and slow for my taste. At least the performances held my interest, but even then, the characters were a bit too unlikable to really give a hoot about. Good review.

    1. I did kind of start feeling like, okay, when does she die? Because, you know, someone’s gotta die. Part of it, I’ve heard, is the story itself. My friend doesn’t even like the book all that much-said it dragged on for far too long for her taste. And of course, the whole depressing and tragic stuff that permeates Russian literature.

  2. LOL *is Russian and therefore this is hilarious because I can’t write happy endings either* I loved the book and when I told a book report on it back in the ancient days of high school everyone loved the story. I didn’t confess I only read the dialogue. (Whoops! I was pressed for time!) Still, great story. I saw an old Russian movie version of it, and I’m super excited to see this one. Tragedy is very powerful, but Tolstoy also does a nice balance between the two main couples he writes about, one which has a happy ending and one which does not. So I’d say more than unhappy endings, we just love bittersweet ones. Who doesn’t? Great review, Amanda!

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