I know this is the opposite of what most critics would tell you, but having watched both, I cannot understand how someone could tell a moviegoer to watch Les Miserables (the accent over the e is not worth the trouble, by the way, so I'll just go with unaccented throughout) when Anna Karenina goes all but ignored by nearly everyone. Both are films that depict a story from classic literature told in stylish, ambitious ways. The difference? In Anna Karenina, the characters speak to each other…like normal humans in films do. In Les Miserables, the characters…sing…everything. Okay, you got me; I do not like musicals. Unless it’s funny or on a stage in New York or something, I don’t want to hear the characters sing their dialogue. I couldn’t stand Chicago, barely got through Sweeney Todd, and I cringed through Les Miserables. So if you like musicals, don’t listen to me. You’ll undoubtedly love Les Miserables (I refuse to shorten the title, by the way) if you enjoy any other musicals. It’s long, it’s expensive, and it has a lot of star power. Almost all of the other critics are salivating over it, but I don’t get it. I am not really going to review the musical, but I have to put this out there: Russell Crowe cannot sing. He can’t. He sounded weird, unnatural, and generally terrible in this film. I would call it laughable, but I found myself to perplexed by his voice to actually laugh. Okay, on to Anna Karenina, and why, if you’re on the fence about musicals or hate them as I much as I do, you should watch this film when you get the chance.
First, for those of you who hear all of the hoopla over the musical (as I will refer to it from here on out) and think, “I don’t really like musicals, but everyone says it’s soooooo good,” don’t lie to yourself. If you don’t like musicals, there’s no way this one will change your mind. If you find it silly for someone to sing lines of dialogue describing exactly what you are watching them do, then you will still find this film silly. It looks great, don’t get me wrong, but they still sing. Anna Karenina (or AK as I will refer to it hereafter due to my difficulty in typing Karenina over and over) provides all of the melodrama and visual flair that the musical provides, but it doesn’t leave you asking yourself, “Why were they singing the whole time?”
AK takes a classic tale of forbidden love and injects it with the amazing style that director Joe Wright is known for. I began to truly pay attention to this director after his last effort, Hanna, because he uses style perfectly. It’s not in your face, yet it’s still impressive. The style calls attention to itself, but feels natural. If he can take a dense Russian novel and turn it into a stylishly entertaining film, then this is a director worth paying attention to.
I don’t want to get into the story all that much, even though playwright Tom Stoppard did a fine job condensing the novel into less than two hours, while also keeping the tragedy and depressing comedy of it all intact. I want to focus on Wright’s take on this film. He sets it up as if it is all happening on a stage, even to the point that there are set changes from scene to scene at times. It was the perfect way to tell this story. Is AK not a story meant for the drama of the stage?
I acknowledge the contradiction of hating one film because it is meant for the stage and praising another because it was filmed as if it was on a stage. I am not being unfair, though. The musical is meant for the stage and it should stay there. AK would work on the stage, but it is endlessly more entertaining to see it filmed as if it were on the stage. AK is meant for the stage in that it is melodramatic and there is an inherent musical quality to the proceedings. Musical in the strictest sense of the word in that classical music is utilized amazingly well, and the characters never feel the need to join in with the music.
If I haven’t convinced you to check one out over the other at this point, I highly doubt that I will. But perhaps a bit about the performances will help. Keira Knightley, of course, is great as the title character. She was simply born to play the miserable character of a Russian novel. Jude Law was impressive as her cuckolded husband. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (of Kick-Ass fame) continues to show his range as Vronsky. And Matthew Macfadyen was a bright spot in a supporting role.
The true star of the film, as you may have guessed, is the director. I have not been very specific with any of the “style” of the film, but that’s because it is better seen with very little knowledge. I had no idea what I was in for specifically, so when I saw it the first time it impressed me and kept me hooked throughout. If you want a musical story without all the nonsensical singing, then Anna Karenina is definitely the movie for you.