Awards Profile: Anna Karenina

Directed By: Joe Wright
Written By: Tom Stoppard (Based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name)

Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Matthew Macfayden, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery, Holliday Grainger, Ruth Wilson, and Bill Skarsgard.

Synopsis: (From IMDB): Set in late 19th-century Russian high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.

Why It Could Succeed:
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is forever a staple of great European literature, and various generations of readers are all familiar with the novel and revere Tolstoy’s work. This story in particular has been adapted a total of twelve times for the screen, with Wright’s latest adaptation lucky number thirteen. The best part about this adaptation is that it has a tremendous director at the helm, whose work over the years has proven his dominance in the romantic drama genre. With successes like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Joe Wright may be cinema’s answer to literature’s Nicholas Sparks. He seems to understand romance like no other filmmaker truly can. The fact that Wright has his top actress, Keira Knightley, playing lead only solidifies Anna Karenina as a sure-to-be Oscar contender.

The strongest adaptation of Anna Karenina was the 1935 film version directed by Clarence Brown, starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March in the title roles. Despite critical and commercial success, the Academy Awards eluded this version. In fact, no Anna Karenina adaptation has ever been up for an Oscar, in any category, so this is where Wright’s version has the advantage. Fans and critics want this film to succeed, and I believe it will if the stars align with great performances and a masterful direction.

Believable? I'm not convinced, as this hammy image does Johnson no favors, but I'll keep my thoughts on reserve.

Knightley’s work in last year’s A Dangerous Method really got under my skin. Uncomfortable as it was to watch, her dedication to the character was both effective and revelatory. I have never been much of a Keira Knightley fan (I’m loyal to her doppelganger, Natalie Portman), but even I couldn’t argue against her unbridled dedication to the craft of acting. Knightley sometimes comes across as annoyingly desperate in many of the roles she tackles, but those problematic traits are slowly diminishing. Based on early word, this could be Knightley’s finest work to date. One can only hope, because Knightley is long overdue for an Academy Award win. She is a well-rounded actress, finding success in both mainstream and independent film markets, and playing the primary protagonist of a much beloved novel is going to draw consumers of both markets to this Knightley project.

Why It Could Fail:
European costume dramas, with romance at its center, haven’t been met with much Oscar love as of late. Jane Eyre, The Duchess, Marie Antoinette, and The Young Victoria are just a few costume drama films that were embraced by critics but never got the steam necessary to go all the way to the big leagues. The same dire fate could repeat for Anna Karenina. I worry that Wright’s Anna Karenina may be overshadowed by films that draw a wider appeal such as Lincoln or even The Dark Knight Rises. Will Academy voters just gloss over Anna Karenina, presuming that despite its quality it isn’t quite deserving of their votes as much as other films released in 2012? I could definitely see some Academy sticklers, especially the ones who want to appear hip and “in the know,” shove aside Anna Karenina for movies that will draw a larger viewership for the 2013 Oscar show.

To be honest, I’m a bit skeptical about the casting of Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky. Johnson was perfect in Kick-Ass, but I can’t take him seriously in this important of a role. Will he play up his romantic side, or are we going to get a hammy, flamboyant performance in Anna Karenina? On paper, I don’t believe Knightley and Johnson as a couple, but since Johnson’s wife is 23 years his senior, I guess anything is possible. I’m curious to see how these two actors will handle such a memorable affair in literature, and much of the film’s success will hinge on Knightley and Johnson’s execution in this regard.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest actress of them all?

Awards Speculation:
Keira Knightley has the best chance at a nomination above anything else Anna Karenina may have to offer the Academy. If she nails this cherished fictitious character, I would consider her the year’s frontrunner for “Best Actress.” With a nomination for Pride and Prejudice under her belt, Knightley may finally land a win. Knightley had low odds of winning for Pride and Prejudice that awards season, but this year’s Anna Karenina may reverse those odds exponentially. Knightley just has to be unarguably stronger than any leading female actress this year. She’s not someone who easily lands in the nomination roster by name alone. Heck, newbies like Carey Mulligan probably have an easier time drawing the accolades from the Academy. Knightley is hit or miss, and last year unfortunately was a miss with her “in-your-face” approach in David Cronenberg’s latest.

Joe Wright has somewhat of a chance of landing a “Best Director” nod, but that’s only if the film finds itself on the nomination ballot for “Best Picture.” Competing against the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Tom Hooper, Alfonso Cuaron, and Paul Thomas Anderson won’t make things any easier for Joe Wright. His adaptation of Anna Karenina is going to have to be universally acclaimed by the film community if it wants to raise the eyebrows of the Academy. However, never being nominated across his illustrious career may give Wright more of an advantage than previously believed. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves rewarding directors with a nomination after delivering consecutive films of quality. Just ask Darron Aronofsky — patience is a virtue in Oscar land.

Some of my Awards Circuit colleagues feel a “Best Picture” nomination is a sure thing for Anna Karenina, but I do question it on the sole basis of its competition. Title-wise, there are just more exciting projects on the horizon, and Anna Karenina may be skimmed over or swept under the rug completely if larger profiled films (Lincoln, Argo, The Master, The Great Gatsby) create more noise.

Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina releases wide on November 9th, 2012, and is being distributed by Focus Features™ (USA) and Universal Pictures™ (UK). The film is being produced by both Studio Canal and Working Title Films.

Oscar Potential:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actress — Keira Knightley
Best Supporting Actor — Jude Law
Best Costume Design
Best Art Direction
Best Musical Score
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Cinematography