Friday, April 5, 2013

Anna Karenina (2012)

Director: Joe Wright                                  Writer: Tom Stoppard
Film Score: Dario Marianelli                       Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson

This seems like one of those films that people are either going to love or going to hate. I find myself in the interesting position of being somewhat in between. Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is a highly stylized telling of the classic Tolstoy novel. It’s part stage production, part Broadway musical, part ballet, and part cinema. To that end, I think it ultimately fails. The concept is unique, to be sure, and there is a great deal of admiration for what Wright has accomplished, but in the end the result is too disjointed, too jarring to allow the audience to settle in and enjoy, and I think that’s what ultimately kept the film out of any serious contention at the Oscars this year.

Leo Tolstoy’s novel concerns Keira Knightley as the title character, a seemingly happily married woman living with her well-to-do politician husband, Jude Law, and their young son in St. Petersburg in 1874. On a trip to Moscow she strikes up a conversation with Olivia Williams as a countess with a son in the military, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Entranced by her Taylor-Johnson follows her back to St. Petersburg and continues to show up wherever she is, until he confesses his love and lures her into a physical relationship. Deciding that her love for him trumps that of Law in their marriage she makes no attempt to be secretive about the affair, prompting Law to divorce her. It’s a typical nineteenth century European romance in which the decorum of high society dictates not only proper behavior, but the punishments for deviation from proper behavior.

The conceit of the film is that the audience is watching a stage production of the story, and in that sense the production is remarkable, flowing effortlessly backstage, in the wings, in front of the stage and up in the catwalks. It’s quite startling in its effect, actors backstage simulating people on the street out walking, doors that open onto the next scene, etc. I’m fairly certain that if the film had kept to that vision of the story the film would have been nominated for an Oscar. As it is, there are stretches in which the story seamlessly becomes a conventional period piece. It’s just as well done, but the problem becomes that it’s too easy to be taken in by the story and forget the overall conceit. When the actors suddenly appear on stage again it’s a jolt that is not very enjoyable for the audience, and the constant back and forth makes it too difficult to suspend disbelief.

Knightly, as always, is spectacular. Not on par with The Duchess, perhaps, but still quite in her element. Another treat is Matthew Macfadyen as her brother. Reunited from Pride and Prejudice, they have become something of a stock company for Wright and they work very well in their scenes together. Taylor-Johnson would not have been my first choice as the young count, but he grows on you after a while. The score by Dario Marianelli is what gives the film its Broadway flavor, that and the broader acting style than would normally be called for in a romance of this type. At the end of the day, however, I’m rather ambivalent about the film, as I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. I certainly enjoyed Knightley, as I always do, but ultimately Anna Karenina’s mix of styles didn’t work for me.

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