Thursday, December 6, 2012

Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina
**1/2 out of ****


Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley, is the first version in a long legacy of cinematic incarnations that I have seen. I have not read Tolstoy's novel nor am I versed in Russian literature. Let's call my perspective on the matter fresh -to put it lightly. This version is directed by the very talented Joe Wright -whose work has a rich quality which is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick films. This is his third period costume drama (as well as his third film to star Knightley). His work with the genre is very good at avoiding the clich├ęs you would normally come to expect and seems to be guided with genuine imagination and creativity that has potential to give a movie life. His 2007 film, Atonement is a remarkable accomplishment to say the least and I think it remains his best film.

Wright has taken a very unconventional approach to this material by staging most of it like one would a theatrical production. He wants the audience to imagine the environments more than see them. Most of the film is shot on old dilapidated theater stages. There’s even a scene when a character makes a trip through a poor part of town passing by peasants in what is supposed to be the streets but is set in the loft above the stage surrounded by ropes and sandbags.

The idea of making a film about infidelity in nineteenth century Russian aristocracy on a theater stage implies a lot about how everyone is participating in the theater of life and must play their part. The film occasionally parts from the theater atmosphere suggesting liberation from the artifice of high society.

As much as I love what Wright is attempting to do, I don’t think it really works. I felt an absolute detachment from the emotion of this story. I think it is possible to shoot a film this way and get the audience involved but Wright’s pacing is too rapid for that to work very well. The great screenwriter, Tom Stoppard (Brazil), cannot be faulted for his work here. This is the issue of ambitious experimental direction, which dishes out narrative in a dizzying stylized fashion that makes a film an unquestionable aesthetic masterpiece but unintentionally buries the story.

I think that this film has a future for argument and speculation. It has a bold artistic drive and is very worth seeing if you are intrigued by the daring ideas of visionary filmmakers. I still admire Wright for making the movie he wanted to make.

Roger Ebert rightly says at the end of his review:
This is a sumptuous film — extravagantly staged and photographed, perhaps too much so for its own good. There are times when it is not quite clear if we are looking at characters in a story or players on a stage. Productions can sometimes upstage a story, but when the story is as considerable as Anna Karenina, that can be a miscalculation.  

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