Monday, November 19, 2012


There's something woefully wrong with "Anna Karenina," and I refer to both the title character who's a distressful mess of a woman, but I also refer to the movie in which she stars. I've heard of style over substance, and I've heard that's what Joe Wright's latest feature falls victim to. But it's much more than that; it's style over no substance. There's no holding this exercise in decadence together other than the decadence on display in itself. This is the third time Wright has used Keira Knightley as his muse ("Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement"), and as much as I wanted another collaboration between this directorial master and the actress to strike gold, this is not the case. She plays dress-up in beautiful gowns playing to the part, the ill-fated Anna Karenina, but there's nothing beyond the beauty she emanates.

All the world's a stage, and she is but a player in the drama. Wright boldly directs his latest period drama (after the welcomed departure of last year's "Hanna") as a stage play within a movie. The action opens upon a stage, the camera moving into the set with all the backstage fixings and characters walking briskly past operating ropes and pulleys. The camera work simultaneously pulls us into 19th century Imperial Russia and keeps us once-removed from the action. The aesthetic is a fun diversion to start, but ultimately begins to deconstruct. Scenes still take place outside and look painterly but don't include the stage. When characters appear within the stage and in the audience area with all the seats removed as opposed to when entire scenes are detached from this stage, it all become random and inconsequential.

There are several moments where backdrop characters freeze to become an astonishing tableau upon the stage. This works to especially great effect when Anna engages in a dance of seduction with the younger count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But again, it more announces the panache of Wright as a director but fails to engage us further in Anna's plight. As the 900-page Leo Tolstoy novel from which this is adapted -- and has been adapted plenty of times before -- tells us, Anna takes a trip to visit relatives and gets enraptured by Vronsky. She's an upper-class wife married to minster Karenin (Jude Law), but the only passion left for their marriage is displaced in a love for their young son. To fall so desperately in love with another man is despicable in the eyes of high society St. Petersberg and Moscow, and yet Anna feels she can flaunt such adultery without the world watching.

Coming from the perspective of a modern day audience, of course we sympathize with Anna. Why shouldn't she able to love who she wants? But at the same time, Anna is so unruly with her desire that she turns to downright recklessness. Her husband learns of the affair, and he offers forgiveness as long as she keep it secret; that way society won't punish her. She refuses, and society sees her punishment in full. When our sympathies begin to shift, that's when "Anna Karenina" really starts to fail. Silly, Anna, passion is temporary.

Whether it's the acting or a stiff screenplay from Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love"), something about the film is bloodless, lifeless and worst of all -- passionless. When Anna feels so powerfully about her affair with Vronsky, we should feel that level of emotion. Meanwhile, there's a third important character in play. A landowner named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) who hopes to marry Kitty (Alicia Vikander), but she has a crush on Vronsky before he's otherwise occupied. Levin and Kitty end up happily-ever-after while Anna, well, you know. Is this version of "Anna Karenina" a tale about following undying love, or a morality tale about responsibility and duty? The confusion is crippling to the film and slams Wright's latest as a glorious miscalculation.

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