‘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

Derrick Bang

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