Anna Karenina (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): love Joe Wright and Keira Knightley’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
How do you retell a classic tale that we have been regaled with more than a dozen times in the history of cinema and television and keep it fresh and exciting… particularly when that tale turns on notions of propriety that are so outdated as to be nearly alien to us today?
Like this. Just like this. We may be visiting the rarified realm of late-19th-century Russian aristocrats in Anna Karenina, we may be tourists gawking at a strange kingdom with rigid rules for respectability that are transgressed only with the swiftest and surest of repercussions, but via one simple, brilliant conceit, we understand the artifice of it — and the necessity of the artifice of it — in an instant. Because director Joe Wright (Hanna, The Soloist) and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) — working, of course, from Leo Tolstoy’s novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — present much of the action on an approximation of a theatrical stage. Oh no, this is not a movie that pretends to be filming a stage play: it is a film about a honking big audacious visual metaphor for following social rules as akin to performing in a theatrical show in which everyone has a specific part to play, and in which any deviation or improvisation ruins the show for everyone else.
And so we meet, for instance, jolly noble civil servant Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen [The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood], who is thoroughly hilarious here) as he shifts from his daytime office to his nighttime club with the help of “stagehands” who roll out desks and roll in dining tables. We see royal balls as showstopping dance numbers. Characters make quite literal entrances onto this stage, as when handsome young cavalry officer Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy) arrives at one of those balls and makes an instant impact on Oblonsky’s sister, Princess Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Never Let Me Go)… who is, alas for them, already married to government official Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law: 360, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). Characters change costumes as they walk from set to set, sometimes past rolling flats of scenery. As Anna’s inevitable affair with Vronsky has her ostracized from “proper” society, we often see her looking down on the “scenes” others are “performing” from the stage “rigging” above.
It’s a startling sort of fakery, and, ironically, a uniquely cinematic one. When we watch an actual stage play, we see past the facade of the presentation, but here, the very fakery we unconsciously forgive on the boards is itself front and center on the screen — it’s the whole point, and it’s not ignorable. There is no pretense that Wright is giving us a realistic depiction of late-19th-century Russia, and in the process, he isn’t merely creating a look that’s highly stylized, and he isn’t merely crafting a metaphor about the social structures under which we all live our lives, even today: he’s underscoring the artificiality of cinema itself. That will be uncomfortable to some — indeed, there were a handful of walkouts at the screening I attended as soon as it became clear that this was not to be a standard costume drama. But “standard costume drama” is precisely what Anna Karenina does not need yet again.
This would be a hugely daring film from anyone, but it’s especially so coming from the team of Wright and Knightley, whose marvelous Pride & Prejudice broke free from the shackles of costume drama by immersing us in grounded, human earthiness. They’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction here, with the overarching metaphor, by its very nature, detracting from the feeling. This Anna Karenina isn’t as wholly emotionally involving as another version of this story might be: Knightley and Taylor-Johnson are supremely passionate, and eventually their Anna and Alexei reach a place where even they are overcome by an ardor that is far off the script they thought they were playing to. The only context for their passion is, by very conscious design, a world in which it is not supposed to exist. The stifling of that passion is so complete that it extends out to us in the audience. It makes for an intriguing cinematic experience, but a confounding one, too.