Nov 18, 2012

Anna Karenina

Shocker: they omit one of the greatest opening sentences in the history of world literature. It's such a great line that it could have been included as a quote, before the story starts. I missed it.
At first it seems that we are in some sort of misbegotten musical, which is not what one expects to happen in any retelling of this tragic story, unless it's an opera. Joe Wright's version of Anna Karenina takes place in the physical realm of a stage. At first this conceit feels labored, distracting and inappropriate, and I was groaning with exasperation for the first 20 minutes, but once you get past all the whimsical dancing, and once this movie focuses in the great story it has to tell, it becomes quite ravishing, if not completely convincing. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard has adapted Tolstoy with verve and several great one-liners. The photography by Seamus McGarvey, the production design by Sarah Greenwood and the costumes by Jacqueline Durran are absolutely stunning, and a good reason to sit through this movie. I hated the vulgar music by Dario Marianelli, but somehow the story of this woman (Keira Knightley) is so good, and the movie is so gorgeous, that one settles into its idiosyncracies and gets carried away, that is, when one is not grimacing at some of its more salient flaws.
For starters, La Knightley is somehow fascinating to watch, although she is not much of an actress. Sometimes she is beautiful; sometimes, as when she laughs, she is not, but she holds the screen, if not with talent, with her looks and her esprit de corps. She carries herself well in costume dramas. As an actress, she is passable in that she does what the character needs to do (cry, swoon, elate), but there is no internal compass. She is just a collection of scenes. Jude Law fares much better as an understated Karenin, whom he plays as a cold, solemn bureaucrat who nevertheless is deeply hurt by his wife, whom he loves in his own prim and distant way. But the biggest problem is the casting of Count Vronksy (I was pining for Fassbender, even if he is long in the tooth). In order for Karenina's amour fou to take root, one has to believe that there is something really fetching in Vronsky, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not that interesting. I understand that part of the tragedy is that Vronsky is not that remarkable a man to make such terrible sacrifices for, but he should have a modicum of charisma. Taylor-Johnson is a cipher.
The main problem with this version is that it is too busy hitting the audience over the head about the theatrical rigidity of Russian social mores with the stage metaphor, (which gets old five minutes into the movie), and this takes time and space from character development. We can fill in the blanks about the characters lives', but the characters would have benefited from more attention from Joe Wright. The stage conceit serves as a shorthand to condense the different social milieus of the film without having to turn it into a miniseries. If one fears being stuck with Anna Karenina on a stage (a la Dogville), Joe Wright's swooping camera and flawless transitions between scenes allow him to keep the eye entertained, and sometimes even astonished. Technically, the movie is spectacular. It is also too long, like the book. Many times, the slow pace has to do with Wright getting carried away with the visual spectacle. At the beginning, the forced choreography seems to border on kitsch, but soon they kind of forget about it and get on with the story. The whole movie looks like a Fabergé egg, yet the most enjoyable parts are when the characters are allowed to be, and speak Tolstoy by way of Stoppard's lines. The character actors are uniformly great, (in particular Emily Watson, Matthew Macfayden and Alicia Vikander) and so it's a pity that the two tragic lovers at the center of the story are not at that level. Still, this Anna Karenina is worth seeing for sheer visual pleasure, and to revisit a great story which is more modern than this ornate version wishes it to be.

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