Like most love it or hate it films, ‘Anna Karenina’ is neither. It falls right in the middle. Call it a half-success. Or a half-fail. This is Joe Wright’s adaptation of a Leo Tolstoy’s novel which has been made into a movie (or mini-series) over a dozen times in the last eight decades. As is usually the case with literary adaptations, I have not read the source material. This is Mr.Wright’s third collaboration with Keira Knightley (who he previously directed in ‘Atonement’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’).
The plot: Keria Knightly plays the title character, a 19th century aristocratic socialite who appears to have it all. She’s married to a government worker (Jude Law), and the two have a son. But she’s in love with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young cavalry officer. She then has this brazen, adulterous relationship that threatens her societal standing. Everyone stares at her disapprovingly while fluttering their fans. She’s left to contend with the personal and social ramifications of her adultery.
There’s a lot in ‘Anna Karenina’ that works really well. Ambition counts for a lot these days, and I admire Wright’s ambitious approach in bringing this story to the screen. There is an intricately structured theatrical framework surrounding a simplistic girl-meets-boy narrative. It is a carefully calculated technical approach, and I give the film big points for trying to do something different. Here are some examples of the visual intelligence employed: There is a character on stage and set pieces slide in such a way that it creates a room around him; as the camera pans around a particular character, the set surrounding them changes; a character walks across a hall and there are others dressing him as he’s walking (his body doesn’t remain in a state of rest for even a moment); the back of a stage opens up and you see the beautiful countryside. If you were impressed with the long tracking shot Mr.Wright demonstrated in ‘Atonement’, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
From a technical standpoint, ‘Anna Karenina’ is first rate. Unfortunately (and the reason I’m not recommending the movie), this also creates a problem. The technique employed, by its very definition, is one that is distancing. We’re being reminded that we’re seeing actors on stage – this makes it difficult to see them as characters, and we cannot get absorbed into the story in the way we ought to be. I wish I saw this picture at the Toronto International Film Festival so I could ask the director why he chose this filmmaking method. My guess is this – the upper class members of St.Petersburgh really took “All the world’s a stage” to heart, and lived their lives as if they were on stage.
But, this method doesn’t allow us to sympathize with Anna for the decisions she makes. She is not a victim of high society, she’s a victim of her own indiscretion – she chooses to leave her husband and son because she believes she has experienced true love for the first time. It’s strangely impulsive to those around her, and divorced women in 1847 Russia didn’t receive much sympathy from their peers. Maybe that was the point Mr.Wright was trying to make. But, if I credit the technical approach for being an enormous success, I have to say that it comes at the expense of characterization, which comes off as a failure. Ultimately, Mr.Wright fails to construct Anna as a tragic hero. A viewer can get hooked into the journey of a heavily flawed protagonist provided he or she feels empathy for the character (the most recent film I can think of for myself would be Denzel Washington’s character in ‘Flight’). The distancing technique kept me at arm’s length emotionally, and ultimately, I did not care for her. It’s also difficult to feel her suffering with all the visual eye candy afloat. There’s a scene where Anna is sick and lying in bed, and her hair is so artfully arranged across the pillow – this, coupled with some beautiful lighting, makes her suffering look pretty.
‘Anna Karenina’ is one of the most difficult movies I’ve had to review this year. Most films are clearly good, or clearly bad, with only a few falling dead in the middle. There is so much to love here. And yet, I can’t quite recommend it. Expect Oscar consideration for Best Costume, and Best Production Design. Other possible categories include Cinematography, Best Actress (Keira Knightley). I certainly don’t think it’s worthy of a Best Picture nomination, but Academy voters may think otherwise. Perhaps the gentlest of thumbs downs I’ve given all year. QED.