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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: Anna Karenina

I've never read Anna Karenina, and I had no familiarity whatsoever with the plot of the 19th century novel from which the film is adapted. I'm sure there are those that would find going into a movie like this cold might be hinderence, but in general I appreciate having a sense of mystery as to what may unfold in front of me, rather than having some foreknowledge of the story's eventual conclusion and just wondering how A will connect to C. As far as I knew, this was another period piece directed by Joe Wright starring Keira Knightly, who is seemingly his muse. I think I can really only sum up on my feeling on the film in two words: ambitious failure.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, like myself, Anna (Kiera Knightly) the wife of the well to do Alexi Karenin (Jude Law) while visiting her brother Stephen Oblonsky (Matthew McFayden) and family to help calm strife due to a recent affair he embarked upon, crosses paths with Russian Calvalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an illicit relationship of her own. This story is paralleled somewhat by the initial rejection and then growing love between agrarian Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and upper-class debutante Kitty (Alicina Vikander). As I understand it, this secondary tale is often excised from most adaptations of the novel, interestingly I found it perhaps the most compelling part of the entire film and am grateful that Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard included it for its thematic and emotional resonance.

Joe Wright makes an intriguing choice with the majority of the set design, by lensing at least three-fourths of the film inside a 19th century Russian playhouse. It makes for a fascinating set of shots, particularly in the film's opening 10 minutes, where Oblonsky is receiving a shave on stage in a very Monty Python-esque fashion and his fellow upper-crust hover around him in the main staging area, as is the case with all the high society scenes taking place in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Pieces of set are manually moved, as if we are watching a living play take place before our eyes; and in one of my favorite moments of the film, after visiting Oblonsky in the playhouse area, the camera follows Levin to the backstage rafters where we see some of the seedier citizens of Imperial Russia and where the laypeople frequent. There is some very rich metaphorical material worth mining here, I was saddened that so little of it was touched upon in the rest of the running time. Certainly the idea of the Steeplechase scene occurring on stage where horse gallop past the visual view of its audience at full speed has to be one of the more inspired ideas of the entire script. It's a bit like Moulin Rogue at times. Unfortunately, Wright begins to abandon some of these ideas as the affair between Anna and Oblonsky begins to grow, and once the after-effects of their actions come into central focus, the more creative aspects begin to fall to the way-side. 

Perhaps where the film holds its biggest failing is in the central romance between Anna and Oblonsky. Wright and Stoppard make the choice to highlight Anna's mental instability and give her very little in the way of redeeming values, while making the scored Karenin quite the sympathetic figure; at issue with the former portrayal is that Wright then elects to contrast Anna's eventual outing as an adulterer with scorn by the Countesses and Princesses with which she frequents to her brother's indiscretions which the citizenry simply shrugs off. There's the obvious idea of women being held at a different standard then men in those less halcyon years, but at that point we care so little about Anna's eventual fate that it all comes across as quite straw-grasping. Knightly does a fine job with the material given, though she truly only gets a few scenes to chew on when she isn't suffocated by the material, or more accurately, the awful performance of her co-star Johnson. Johnson's Vronsky is a blank cypher, by the end of the film, we know as little about him as we did at the beginning. His interactions with Anna rarely work, and their chemistry is so non-existent that when they finally consummate their union, one can only find it yawn-inducing. 

Luckily, Jude Law is in top form as Karenin. Embracing his middle-age and receding hair line, he's a far cry from the heartthrob of ten to fifteen years ago, but his performance is all the better for it. The depleted dignity he carries with him while his wife publicly carries on is one I feel confident in calling the best in show performance. Matthew McFayden as Oblonsky is also a welcome presence, eliciting some much needed zest between sloggish sequences of Anna and Vronsky, and every scene with Levin and Kitty highlights what little tension the central pair have by making you wish they were the focus of the script instead. There's a beautiful sequence in the third act where Levin and Kitty admit their love for one another through toy-block messages thats wonderfully done and I can't help but wonder why we couldn't get more of that kind of emotional material throughout?

In fits and spurts, Anna Karenina is an effective film, I'd say for nearly half of its duration, unfortunately the central plot mechanic is so lifeless that the film suffers for it. This, along with the sense of a lack of commitment to theme by Wright himself is a jarring experience that is difficult to get lost into. I applaud ambition wherever it can be found, but failing to reach ambition is still unfortunately failure in of itself. It's interesting, but that doesn't make it necessarily compelling.

I give it 2.5 out of 4 stars (or a C+ if you prefer).
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