Anna Karenina (2012)

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A miss is as good as a mile

After a helter-skelter, but always ambitious, progress from classic to uplift, then pop action with Pride and Prejudice, then Atonement, then The Soloist, and finally Hanna, Joe Wright has gone back to literary classics with Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina. It’s a grand, glittering, beautiful production with an admirable cast, amazing costumes, dances, and sets. But in my view, and I’m not alone, this film is also a serious miscalculation from first to last. All the glitter is distracting enough, but it’s compounded by Wright’s doing a “Brechtian,” self-consciously artificial “staging” of much of the action inside a large, derelict nineteenth-century Russian theatre. He’s meaning to heighten the audience’s sense of the brittle fakeness of Russian high society of the time. But he has to keep leaving the stage for the outdoor and country scenes, to begin with. And then what about the story? Tolstoy’s novel was meant to be unusually realistic, quite the opposite of stagey. Wright winds up badly undermining Tolstoy’s deeply emotional content.

Anna (Keira Knightley) flits in and out of scenes in a succession of dazzling high-dress outfits and curious asymmetrical necklaces (to show that her life is askew, no doubt). Perhaps the most memorable scene is a dance, the one in which Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) switches from Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander, the Queen in A Royal Affair) to Anna. It is skillfully staged by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as Leslie Felperin of Variety puts it “to make the dancers look like graceful automatons.” They twist and turn, overlapping their arms in complicated, rather astounding symmetrical patterns. It’s as impressive as it is distracting.

Everything in this movie is like a painting of a lady in which the rendering of the dress is so beautiful it detracts from her face. There actually was a famous one of a French countess by Fantin-Latour, and the countess infuriated the painter by having the bottom of the painting cut off. That wouldn’t work here, unfortunately. You’d have to cut away everything. Mind you, the costumes and sets are fabulous. But remember, Tolstoy was striving for emotional directness and realism.

Without necessarily going as far as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle (“You know there is something seriously wrong with Anna Karenina when you start rooting for the train”), one is put off at the outset because the action looks more like a musical or a ballet than a dramatic feature. Apparently Wright’s parents were puppeteers, and he enjoys moving his actors around like puppets, as well as dwelling on doll houses and toy trains in his interiors to foreshadow the action. This makes us lose track of what, if anything, all the rich decor has got to do with Tolstoy’s adulterous wife, her infuriated husband Karenin (Jude Law), or her frivolous young cavalry lover Vronsky.

The actors are various, many admirable, if lost in the shuffle. Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) is played for comic relief, as if everybody, amid the artificiality of staging and movement, were not frequently providing that. Stoppard’s adaptation is verbose: remember his exhaustingly talky Russian revolution trilogy The Coast of Utopia, put on at the National Theatre a decade ago? Readers can see just how verbose he originally was this time, because the screenplay has already been published as a book. Probably a much simpler text would have helped the story to shine through Wright’s over-elaborate filmmaking.

One nice feature of Stoppard’s screenplay is that he has given more space than other film adaptations to the subplot of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the idealistic farmer-aristocrat and Tolstoy surrogate who’s in love with Kitty, but has to wait till she gives up on Vronsky. Vikander and Gleeson are charming. They make a good contrast to the bored, spoiled urban aristocrats. We’d like to spend more time with them than the main triangle of the grumpy, self-consciously un-handsome (and relatively Russian-looking) Jude Law, the angular, screechy or alternately hysterically gay Knightley, and the superficial pretty-boy popinjay Taylor-Johnson, a porcelain doll with fluffy peroxided blond hair and a silly little curlicue of a ginger mustache.

This Vronsky is another big flaw of the film. He’s utterly unworthy of Anna’s throwing away her life on. But he is matched by Knightley’s brittleness as Anna. Her performance has been justifiably but not flatteringly compared to her unconvincing recent turn as the mad Russian Jewish woman Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenberg’s arid A Dangerous Method. Knightley and Taylor-Johnson aren’t right for Tolstoy’s tragic love story. But they deserve each other. Jude Law on the other hand, stolid and unappealing but sad and real, is great casting — but for another movie of this story. But even Law, though he looks and acts deliciously formal and solemn and authoritatively stuffy, sounds wrong in some key scenes, speaking in an unnatural, stagey hoarse whisper that only enhances the sense that Stoppard’s dialogue is neither English nor Russian, and these are not real people speaking.

As others have mentioned — but Richard Brody of The New Yorker has written about this most fully and eloquently — the Tolstoyan theme of the tragic adultery of a woman married to a man of impeccable character and stolid temperament who “has an affair with a dissolute young officer, and comes to grief” has already been treated better this year. Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz, “nominally” adapted from a play by Terence Rattigan and one of the year’s best films, is very close to Tolstoy. Davies presents the theme in an impressively simple, direct, emotionally profound and deeply resonant way. We didn’t need Wright’s grandiose and flashy misfire when we already had Davies’ quiet triumph.

Maybe in this elaborate production Wright was grasping for long ago British cinematic glory — the glittering, magical kind of artificiality you get in some of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic films, notably The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. But he doesn’t strike the right note, and he oughtn’t to have taken on Tolstoy to try to do it. Besides, this is 2012, not 1948 or 1951. We need Davies’ authenticity and grit, not flash and filigree. Wright’s Anna Karenina is glorious to look at, but an emotional void.

DIRECTOR: JOE WRIGHT
WRITER: TOM STOPPARD, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY LEO TOLSTOY
STARS: KIERY KNIGHTLEY, JUDE LAW, AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON, DOMHNALL GLEESON, ALICIA VIKANDER, MATTHEY MAKFADYEN, OLIVIA WILLIAMS, EMILY WATSON
RUNTIME: 129 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: UK

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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