There’s a lot to talk about in the movie Anna Karenina, but what I feel like talking about is this: Anna Karenina is just pretty.
The set design, staging, lighting, and costuming are all exquisite. Moreover, the movie flaunts this exquisiteness to the point where it can’t be ignored. Each choice is meticulously made, with texture and color used to full effect.
For instance, the initial dance scene between Vronsky and Anna is beautiful and beautifully obvious at the same time – Vronsky and his partner: golden blonds in gleaming white, Anna and her partner: dark-haired, shrouded in dark colors. The couple’s meeting is a visual discord that sharply foreshadows the chaos to follow. Scenes like this dazzle the eyes no matter where your gaze falls. (It helps that the milieu is populated by pretty people.)
The most self-indulgent, magnificent choice is clearly the one to set most of the movie’s action inside of a theater. In the opening scenes, the elaborate staging is in full force, and the audience is treated to set changes, model trains, and a tour of seemingly all the nooks and crannies of the old building.
I’ve read some reviews that complain that the theater staging gets old, tedious. The pretty sets, the pretty costumes, the pretty people all become too much. For me, this is no complaint – it’s a compliment. As the movie (and the affair) progresses, the beauty still exists, but it becomes torturous. The indulgences feel overdone, the characters (while still pretty) become ugly through their actions, and the scenes are more shadow than light. There are fewer clever transitions within the theater and more action away from it. A memorable vignette: Anna, half-dressed, wearing the skeleton of her dress rather than the full extravagant costume. By the end of the film, it is now the pain that is as exquisite and impossible as the earlier staging.
The audience should feel this shift and be unsettled by it. What would be worse is if there was no change at all – if the pretty people on the stage lived forever in their furs and ballgowns, bathed endlessly in rich light sources and riding on toy trains. The genius of the movie is in the transition. As the tragedy of the plot reaches fruition, the film takes full advantage of its visual medium to follow it. In the final act, the audience wishes for the end as much as Anna Karenina does.