Monday, February 4, 2013

Anna Karenina

Grade: 42 (C)

There’s such a thing as being too ambitious. It’s understandable that Joe Wright might want to branch out a bit after his early successes in prestige-lit adaptations (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement). And sure, artists should always challenge themselves and try new things so as to stay fresh and exciting. But while it may seem churlish and stubborn to ask Wright to just repeat what he did so well before on Anna Karenina, it’d likely be far more successful than this technically dazzling but mannered and tedious project. Wright’s Anna Karenina is too many ideas and not enough storytelling.

When Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) is banished from home by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) for having sex with their governess, he calls upon his sister Anna (Keira Knightley, in her third collaboration with Wright) to set things right. Anna is married to Minister Karenin (Jude Law), a successful but passionless man. Stiva’s friend Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), meanwhile, pines for Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who’s too hung up on a handsome young cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But Vronsky meets and falls for Anna, and the two embark on a passionate affair that will ostracize Anna from Russian society and end in tragedy.

Wright proved himself a confident visual stylist with Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, someone who shook off the dusty trappings of period costume dramas and breathed life into an often inert genre. He’s since expanded in ambition, but he’s become less clear-headed in his creative choices. His decision to set much of Anna Karenina on a stage is a bizarre move, something the filmmaker and the film’s supporters have justified as calling attention to the artificiality of Russian society’s norms. In the early going, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed. The actors hit their marks with absolute precision, scenes change in a way that’s both floridly theatrical and wonderfully cinematic, and orchestras and crew members become part of the action. As a pure technical exercise, it’s often quite beautiful.

It’s also needlessly distracting. Wright and company have all committed to their concept, but they’re so busy trying to make the technical stuff work, not to mention trying to fit Leo Tolstoy’s doorstop of a novel into two hours, that they lose track of the particulars of the story. It’s understandable that one might cut much of the material dealing with the particulars of Russian society, but it takes away any specificity of the story’s tragedy (it might as well be set in Victorian London or 1800s New York) and undermines Wright’s theatrical conceit. It now seems like an arbitrary decision rather than a creative choice to serve a story about a theatrical society.

It’s also understandable that Wright might cut much of the slower moving material dealing with Kitty and Levin or Anna and Vronsky growing bored with each other. But paring down the Kitty/Levin sections weakens their later scenes together, making their material seem like an afterthought rather than an essential counterpoint to Anna and Vronsky’s doomed relationship. The sections of Anna and Vronsky growing apart, meanwhile, turn Anna Karenina into a story of foolish decisions made out of fleeting passion rather than a standard-issue tragedy of a doomed relationship, which is more or less what it turns out to be here.
Wright’s creative decisions also undermine most of the performers: Gleeson and Vikander are good as Levin and Kitty, but they spend so much time off the screen that we lose interest in them. Other major characters played by Emily Watson and Ruth Williams flit in and out without having a chance to create memorable characters, never mind that their source is one of the greatest novels ever written. Knightley is as game as ever, but she’s paired with a disastrously miscast Johnson, who comes off as a kid playing dress-up (not helped by his ridiculous hair and moustache) and a petulant child rather than a young, virile captain (were James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender not available?). Only Law as the well-intentioned but cold Karenin comes out unscathed.

Anna Karenina is a deeply frustrating movie. So much effort went in, to no avail. Wright tries to make theatre cinematic but mostly seals the film off into a hermetic world. He tries to adapt one of the great Russian novels and loses what made it specifically Russian. He tries to make a star-crossed lovers story but grabs two people with no sparks. He tries to make the film a manageable length but makes everything so thin that it actually feels longer. With this and 2011’s Hanna, Wright has made two movies in a row that are both technically stunning and curiously remote. That earlier film too felt like it lost what it had wanted to say somewhere in the ambition. Wright needs to suit his concepts to the stories he wants to tell, not the other way around.

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