Tuesday, March 3, 2015
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

‘Anna Karenina': A tale oddly told

By
From page A9 | November 30, 2012 |

‘Anna Karenina’

Three stars

Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams

Rating: R, and rather harshly, for mild sexuality and dramatic intensity

Tolstoy’s venerable saga can’t stand up to a wealth of directorial flourishes

By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic

Artistic vision is captivating — or clever — to the point at which it calls too much attention to itself, and interferes with the story.

In effect, the tail then wags the dog; we’re too frequently aware of the artifice, at the expense of plot and character development. Empathy and identification become difficult, if not impossible.

Director Joe Wright’s handling of Leo Tolstoy’s venerable “Anna Karenina” is radiant and ferociously inventive, thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s luminescent cinematography and, most notably, Sarah Greenwood’s brilliant production design. The film is a thing of great artistic beauty, and we cannot help being enchanted — initially — by its sheer, magnificent theatricality.

But the artifice soon becomes tiresome, which exposes the oddly flat and vexingly mannered performances. Celebrated playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard undoubtedly deserves equal credit (or blame) for this vision; I’m disappointed, however, that this abbreviated, heavily stylized handling of Tolstoy lacks the narrative snap and sparkling dialogue that brought Stoppard a well-deserved Academy Award for “Shakespeare in Love.”

Indeed, despite all the bosom-heaving melodrama present in Tolstoy’s novel, this newest adaptation of “Anna Karenina” is a curiously bloodless affair.

Wright’s approach best can be described as a stylized blend of Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” (absent the music), Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and the popular stage farce “Noises Off.” Luhrmann’s flamboyant musical told its story as the characters improbably broke into song; Greenaway’s saga unfolded as the camera tracked horizontally, apparently seamlessly, between events taking place in various settings … as if characters wandered into and out of fully dressed stages in half a dozen impossibly connected theaters.

Toss in “Noises Off,” for its behind-the-scenes antics — the stuff we’re never supposed to see — and the result is, well, fascinating. For a time.

The primary set piece, then, is a once-beautiful but now decaying theater, intended to represent the aristocratic rot of 1870s Russian high society; this building’s various sections, dressed appropriately, serve as the story’s many locales. We find Anna (Keira Knightley) and her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), at home in one corner of the massive stage; as Anna — for example — exits the room, she wanders “backstage” between curtains, scrim and backdrops, perhaps changing her wardrobe in order to be properly garbed as she enters the setting for the next scene.

As an exercise in coordinated activity, the result is breathtaking; I cannot imagine how much rehearsal was required, to get everything and everybody to move just so at all the right moments. But we also cannot help noticing the many and varied technical demands, to make it all work, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s extended single-camera takes in 1948’s “Rope” eventually overwhelmed the drama.

Every inch of this cavernous space is used; sometimes characters ascend stairs to overhead catwalks, suggesting a disquieting journey through Moscow’s seamier underbelly. Wright takes a similarly whimsical approach to set elements: At one point, Anna and her beloved young son Serozha (Oskar McNamara) play with a tabletop toy train, which unexpectedly chugs through a wintry Russian countryside and then morphs into the full-scale train that takes Anna on her fateful trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Are we impressed? Absolutely. But are we moved?

Likely not.

The plot, then: Events are set in motion when the gorgeous, privileged Anna travels to Moscow to help her philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), save his marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). During the aforementioned train journey, Anna encounters Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), who is met at the Moscow station by her son, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a dashing cavalry officer.

Dolly is distraught, having been humiliated one too many times by her promiscuous husband. Anna counsels forbearance, citing family responsibilities, the deep ties of marital love, and so forth: all the “reasons” that we know she’ll soon disregard herself.

By coincidence, Oblonsky is entertaining his best friend, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a shy, sensitive landowner with a crush on Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Levin proposes, but Kitty has eyes only for Vronsky … who, in turn, ignores her completely, having been smitten by lust-at-first-sight over Anna.

The feeling is mutual.

Anna cannot put Vronsky out of her mind. Illicit thoughts give way to flowery declarations; a full-blown affair results. The rest, we can anticipate (or we know, having read the book).

But this, finally, is where Wright loses control of his film. Knightley’s take on Anna is incongruously rash and improbably arrogant: much more the behavior of an emancipated 21st century woman. But if her conduct seems unlikely, Law’s Karenin is even worse: essentially dead from the neck up. Law’s foolishly naïve and laughably stoic performance makes Karenin look and act like a block of granite … and the biggest idiot on Earth.

We’re intended to believe that Karenin wants to trust and believe in his wife, but Law makes the man seem dense and uncaring. Things become even sillier when Anna, gravely ill, insists that the two men now in her life come to some sort of “understanding.” Nobody in the room can pull off this scene — not Knightley, Law or Taylor-Johnson — and the story never recovers, despite (because of?) the considerable weight of additional melodramatic complications.

We’re far more emotionally invested in Levin’s pursuit of the chagrined Kitty, who realizes that her earlier treatment of this timid young man may have destroyed her only chance at happiness. Vikander is warm and sympathetic, with the fresh glow of youth; we also adore Kitty, just as we grow to despise Anna. Gleeson, similarly, makes Levin an honest and honorable suitor.

A film’s balance is off when its secondary characters pull focus from its stars. I recall being bothered by the same problem in “Out of Africa,” where the sidebar characters played by Michael Kitchen and Suzanna Hamilton were far more interesting, at all times, than Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.

Nor do Knightley and Law lose this battle merely to Vikander and Gleeson. Macfadyen’s Oblonsky is the only actor to deliver the theatrical flourish that this mannered production demands; the film bursts into sparkling life every time he’s on camera, and his line deliveries are delightful. He almost makes infidelity sound reasonable.

Macdonald’s Dolly, as well, makes the most of her few scenes. We’re left with the unmistakable conclusion that Macfadyen, Macdonald, Gleeson and Vikander are simply better actors than Knightley, Law and Taylor-Johnson.

Wright has a history of inventive filmmaking, albeit always (until now) in moderation. I love the way his camera follows different revelers during a party in 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice,” and the lengthy, single-take camera shot that depicts the British retreat from Dunkirk, in “Atonement,” is simply astonishing.

But these are momentary delights amid rigorously plot- and character-driven narratives. With “Anna Karenina,” Wright has embraced such tendencies far too much; the result, sadly, is uninvolving, overly self-indulgent and quite disappointing.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

Comments

comments

.

News

Nominees sought for city’s human rights awards

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A1

 
Pedal power: It’s a different kind of March Madness

By Felicia Alvarez | From Page: A1 | Gallery

STEM-Tastic Sunday highlights summer opportunities

By Chloe Lessard | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
County: Baby Justice was on Social Services’ radar

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Budget standoff leaves California college hopefuls in limbo

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
Appeals court upholds protection for threatened seabird

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

House to vote on Homeland bill without conditions

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

 
State to supply just 20 percent of water

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

Bob Dunning: Rampant crime on the streets of Davis

By Bob Dunning | From Page: A2, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
For the record

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2

Pets of the week

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3 | Gallery

 
Embroiderers will discuss needlework tools

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Tuleyome needs volunteers for work party

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4 | Gallery

‘Pearls Before Swine’ joins daily comics lineup

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Winter market wraps up Wednesday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Public broadband, on ‘Davisville’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Alcoholic liver disease strikes Hispanics years earlier

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

Join a fitness party at Zumba class

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

 
Logos Books hosts conversation groups, poetry readings

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Get a taste of Middle Earth at library

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

 
Holmes’ talent showcased

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

Bingo games Sunday will benefit DHS Madrigals’ trip

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

 
Go all in for fun at Texas Hold ‘Em tournament

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

DCC Nursery School hosts open house

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

 
City says it did not OK Ygrene mailers

By Dave Ryan | From Page: A6

 
Sure and begorrah!

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A6

Overeaters get support at meetings

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A6Comments are off for this post

 
Cycle de Mayo kicks off Bike Month

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A6

Klein’s book featured at Authors on the Move

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

 
.

Forum

One more family insult

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

 
The kids aren’t interested

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

Climate changes are inevitable

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

 
Act for our children’s future

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

UCD alums will want to stay

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

 
End the use of this word

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

Thanks for act of kindness

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

 
Tom Meyer cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A8

Cannery CFD creates unequal taxation patchwork

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A8

 
.

Sports

Lady Blue Devils in semis Tuesday night

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

 
Aggie men host two big ones this week

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

Dream run ends for Davis’ master wrestlers

By Evan Ream | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Devil boys net an easy tennis victory

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

In the Clubhouse: Summerhays Jr. talks about new post at El Macero CC

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Sports briefs: Aggie lacrosse team takes home opener

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3

 
Newly acquired Smith scores in Sharks’ victory

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3 | Gallery

Blue Devil girls look for revenge in the pool

By Kellen Browning | From Page: B10 | Gallery

 
DHS boys aim to repeat as section swim champs

By Kellen Browning | From Page: B10

.

Features

Name Droppers: Dunn graduates from Marine Corps basic training

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7 | Gallery

 
.

Arts

Thursday Live! features Keith Cary, Wyatt Hesemeyer

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A9

 
Songs of the Civil War to be performed by Anonymous 4

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A9 | Gallery

 
Davis Chorale starts year with demanding music

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A9

.

Business

.

Obituaries

Dieter W. Gruenwedel

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

 
Otto Vasak

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

.

Comics

Comics: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 (set 1)

By Creator | From Page: B5

 
Comics: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 (set 2)

By Creator | From Page: B7