Monday, December 24, 2012

Anna Karenina

When a filmmaker chooses to adapt one of those often made (and remade) classic pieces of literature that some may have a passing familiarity of whilst trying to get out of directly reading in high school, there comes the same set of challenges.  Trying to clear the cobwebs of times long ago and bringing something new and exciting and relative to the stuffy tales of yore.  The best of the old Merchant Ivory films were a clear gold standard in dusting off the good taste and good for you vein of the classics.  A more recent choice example could be Joe Wright's messier and spirited redoing of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, which felt like a valentine to the old values, but rid itself the middlebrow bourgeosie.  Joe Wright continues his re-working of the classics with Anna Karenina, a stately, handsome boldly alert adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel, a continuation of his work with corset muse Keira Knightley after Pride and Prejudice and Atonement.  It's a solid place for Wright, whose modern, genre efforts The Soloist and Hanna were mixed at best.  The best, and also the worst, thing Wright has done with Anna Karenina is in his unique quest to keep the action flowing.  He sets is all on a stage, letting the artifice and theatricality flow and linger with the hopes of it fully coming alive to contemporary filmgoers.

The conceit-- strange and often beautifully rendered, actually kind of works as the story gets started.  The choreography and the stage is mounted so over the top, you half expect the cast to break out in song.  The story, set in the higher echelons of society in 19th century Russia is a doomed romantic tragedy, and the theatricality often works in the mirroring that the private scandals and heartbreaks of its characters were put on display as a mere form of idle gossip and entertainment-- sound familiar?  Wright and his team of stylists-- many he's worked with before-- continue to deliver bold period details to their art.  Sarah Greenwood's production design of moving set pieces is at times bewildering in it's construction and wonder.  Jacqueline Durran's costume designs are opulent, large and immense.  Seamus McGarvey's cinematography is often to beautiful to withhold; playful in besotted times; fragile when the story turns melodramatic.  Dario Marianelli's score is classical, but tuneful, a perfect fit for twisty artistry.  It's easy to get lost in Anna Karenina in its superficiality, for unfortunately the film is but skin depth, with a story and arc that plays more like an episode of Gossip Girl than an epic romantic tragedy.

Anna (Knightley) is a dutiful wife and mother, a member of the St. Petersberg elite thanks to her husband (Jude Law; a terrific cuckold- a change of pace for the one cinematic seducer) and a ravishingly charming socialite.  The plague of her high society days are when she meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young, handsome man instantly enraptured by her.  The two famously begin a romance, but the film comes to sudden limp once the two embrace one another.  The conquest and the pursuit are where Wright's project exceeds, especially in the grand theatrical sequences of the dance halls, where Anna tries to resist temptation and the great artifice on display reaches its eye candy climax.  The biggest problem with Wright's Anna however, is that Vronsky, as depicted and portrayed by the wan and sulky Taylor-Johnson, is such a cold fish, the question arises as to what drew her in at all.  And for the great deal of risk, histrionics and over-flowing of emotion to come on her part, in Wright's version, she would be better of with her distancing, but stable husband and provider.  Knightley is a bewitching Anna, and comes into nearly full maturation in her parade of classic heroine, unearthing the charm, wit and poise of a woman always nearly on the verge of hysteria.

And while the deduction of Anna Karenina is a pity, especially in it's latter and unfortunately weaker half, there's a richness to the spectacle that reads that a great film could probably have been achieved.  Either if the on-the-stage conceit been maximized to the fullest of its convictions, and not just in easier stretches of surface exposition, or if the story had been tightened.  Many of the supporting characters-- some of whom played by luminaries like Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Matthew Macfadyen and Kelly Macdonald-- feel are the more extraneous; I'd keep Alicia Vikander, whose enthused Kitty is a notable bright spot in a underdeveloped part.  However, be it by ego of Joe Wright, or a whittled down screenplay by Tom Stoppard, Anna Karenina is only at its sharpest when the stakes are at their most banal.  C

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...