Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: "Anna Karenina"

In adapting Leo Tolstoy’s iconic novel “Anna Karenina” for the screen, director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) have gotten too clever by half. The result is a sprawling, overly ornamented mess in which the theatricality of the production overwhelms the storytelling.

I don’t generally get too cynical about the motivations of filmmakers, but this movie seems like it was made with Oscar ambitions in mind. From the classic literary touchstone to the extravagant costumes/sets and high-toned performances, everything has a very self-satisfied pedigreed feel to it. I don’t mind films with ambition and even a little swagger, but in this case the braggadocio is misplaced.

Wright and Stoppard run afoul by adopting the notion of Tolstoy’s novel as a grand stage play in which the characters are both audience members and participants. Many scenes involve Anna and the people around her attending the theater, and then our perspective shifts so now they are performing in front of the lights. Or they go about their daily lives, with stagehands moving the scenery around into place and placing props in the characters’ hands, just in time for them to deliver their dialogue.

This is a bold concept, and one that might have worked better of exercised consistently. But the theme goes away for long stretches at a time, so when we are abruptly reminded of the filmmakers’ conceit – say, when Anna’s husband watches his children frolicking in a field, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the entirety of the theater filled with wildflowers – the effect is more discombobulating than thought-provoking.

Tolstoy’s story is stripped down – how could it not be for the famously long-winded author? – but the bones of the tale remain. Anna (Keira Knightley) is a member of Tsarist Russia’s pampered nobility circa 1874. Married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a rich and powerful senior government official, Anna is seen as an irreproachable woman of high society.

But then she falls for a dashing young cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and finds her world crumbling around her. Even when faced with social ruin and estrangement from her children, Anna finds herself unable to tear away from her powerful desires.

“You are the murderer of my happiness,” Anna whispers in Vronsky’s ear during their first frenetic, almost violent coupling – which should give you a flavor of the sort of arch dialogue spoken throughout the film.
Knightley tries valiantly, but is not entirely convincing in the role of a woman torn asunder by forbidden love.

Part of that has to do with her androgynous looks -- she's beautiful and alluring, but in a curiously sexless way. It's not necessarily a bad thing for an actress -- Audrey Hepburn possessed the same quality. But it makes roles in which passion is the major dynamic a challenge for her.

Taylor-Johnson primps and smirks, and we never really get to see any layers beneath the superficial one the story presents. Since the audience immediately recognizes Vronsky as a cad, it only diminishes Anna that she falls for him so completely.

Law is terrific as Karenin, a man who gives his wife utter devotion but little in the way of intimacy or emotional connection. It's not that he withholds these qualities, but rather that he simply does not have them in his makeup. He does give Anna all that he does have to offer, and is genuinely crushed when that is not enough for her. Ostensibly the villain of the piece, Karenin ends up being the most identifiable person we encounter.

I respect the cast and crew of "Anna Karenina" for trying to do something different with a classic tale. But even sincere experiments sometimes fail.

2 stars out of four

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