Friday, June 20, 2014

Each Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Director: Joe Wright

Reviewed: 20 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

Tom Stoppard's script condenses Leo Tolstoy's 963 page novel into a concise 2 hour and 9 minute film, and married to that vision of this great Russian classic is director Joe Wright's theatrical sensibility of staging much of this within the confines of a classic theater setting. Marvelously, much of the film exists on the stage or around or above it, with sets being magically whisked into view, actors and actresses changing costumes quickly, artwork being dropped into view in the background hinting at the majesty of Moscow or the fields of wheat in the country. The stage becomes an office, a home, a train station, an opera house, and beyond, lending itself to Wright's love of long takes (evidenced in his camera swimming through parties in Pride & Prejudice or circling the beach of war torn Dunkirk in Atonement). Anna Karenina never seems to be having more fun than in that opening thirty minutes when Wright dazzles with inventiveness, taking us to the street through the stairs up into the rafters or having a delightfully daffy Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden, obliterating his dour and officious Mr. Darcy character) storm around his office, tipping his cigar at his servants while eyeing his children's governess. And that act of infidelity, discovered by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) begins the story. In the face of divorce, Oblonsky's sister Anna (Keira Knightley) arrives to heal the rift and preserve the union, but the train journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow leads to a chance encounter with the captivating Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). To enter into an affair with Vronsky means putting her marriage to the austere committee-member Karenin (Jude Law) at risk as well as the life of her young son Serhoza. In minor key to the relationship between Vronsky and Anna, the film also portrays the idealistic farm-owner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) tentatively pursuing the regal Princess Shcherbatsky (Susanne Lothar). The consequences of Anna's actions lead to social ostracism, paranoia, and potential ruin for all in a time where reputation means all and divorce is unpardonable.

In such a lengthy novel, the desire to be encyclopedic about agrarian methods, Russian politics, and family history can be indulged. In a more conventional film's running time, these elements must be boiled and dumbed down, reduced to their surface rather than plumbed to their depth. My main complaint with the film, having just finished the novel, is Wright's obsession with the surfaces (the costumes and shining jewelry; the lighting and blinding white and blues of Vronsky's uniforms) while neglecting the interiority of his central triangle of Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin. Anna's shift in mindset happens far too abruptly and without enough time to develop; it is difficult to understand the passion curdling so violently. Keira Knightley is a fine actress, but her work here as Anna seems too quick to offer as much about Anna the woman. She needed more scenes. I'm not sure that Johnson-Taylor has the gravitas or intensity yet to play a Vronsky well, and Jude Law is given very little to do in very few scenes. Macfayden seems to be having the most fun, and it is joyous to see him reunited with his former co-star of Pride & Prejudice. He seems of another movie entirely. The Levin-Shcherbatsky sections leave far too much unexplored, and the ending seems to me to be mishandled.

Wright foregrounds train imagery throughout the film, and I admire his fluid camera work and dazzling creativity. However, the decision to place most of the film inside the theater also undercuts some of the power of a dramatic horse-racing scene (where Vronsky's miscalculations and hubris are more obvious when given more dramatic time and space). Throughout, though, it is exciting to see Wright's characters dance and swirl around the stage, go in and out of doors only to reappear upon an entirely different setting. The film has a musical quality with elements of dance incorporated, but he also freezes scenes to dramatize certain moments.

The degree of difficulty in crafting a film from this novel demands an ambitious director. Wright is mostly up to the task, but his stumbles are also the screenplay's. The devotion to the technical aspects of the film may have supplanted the core relationships, and without investing in the drama of Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin, the film leaves me with a dry, academic, distanced sense of admiration instead of an emotional payoff at the end with "the impossibility of struggling." The final shots are ponderous: Karenin reading in the wheat fields with the children, and then the wheat fields extending into the theater. I'm not sure what to make of some of the dramatic choices here, but clearly Wright is interested in the masquerade of hypocrisy and facades worn by Russian aristocracy in 1870, though as a storyteller, he was better, funnier, and more nuanced in his work with Austen than he is with Tolstoy.

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