Leave it to director Joe Wright to turn a work of timelessness into a bravura exercise of over-the-top theatricality. An intoxicating film of vision and ambition, in Wright’s hands Anna Karenina looks like an impressionist painting that pays homage to artists as varied as Georges Seurat, Mary Cassatt, Max Ophuls, and Wang Kar-Wai. Whether you know Leo Tolstoy’s beloved novel will matter little when faced with this labyrinth of artistic experimentation, imagery, and scope. Wright turns Anna Karenina into candy for grown-ups to create a satisfying congruence between the materialistic themes in the story and his underlying vitriol towards the hoity-toity values of its wealthy characters.
By reducing Anna Karenina to a children’s game that freely jumps space and time, Wright makes a toyland out of what otherwise might have been a stuffy costume drama. Keira Knightley, with her youthful stares and childlike whining, embodies a heroine who we can relate to (due to her repression) yet disdain for her unwillingness to see beyond the privileges of her life. Nobody is to be liked in Anna Karenina and few can escape the accusations of hypocrisy. It’s Imperial Russia in 1873 and “adult” talk of “honor,” “dignity,” and “infidelity” are merely laughable words thrown around as if they mean anything more than selfishness when put in the mouths of such egotistical beings.
While the jumps in spatial relations create a playful palette, the plot suffers from a lack of believable evolution. As if working from the cliff notes version of the source material, plot discoveries occur seemingly from thin air, making the scenes appear like writer Tom Stoppard is ticking off beats on a checklist. At one point, Anna falls ill after childbirth. She calls her betrayed husband, Alexei, to her bedside, pleading for forgiveness. We must suppose that Alexei believes in his wife for a moment because only a handful of scenes later he will act surprised that Anna remains unfaithful. The scenes come quickly and make large leaps in logic. Sometimes writers adapt novels assuming that the audience knows the source and therefore no real plot growth is necessary. Thankfully, Anna Karenina isn’t about story so much as presentation.
Taking place just decades before the Russian Revolution, Wright’s Karenina is wrought with scenes and imagery that illustrate class divide. Smartly, the film doesn’t dwell on a growing tension between the wealthy and the struggles of the impoverished. Instead, Wright allows his commentary to only come to the surface in surreal scenes like Anna’s trip back into the train that tangentially causes the death of a railway worker. Before getting on the train, Anna makes eyes with the worker. With his entire body covered in black soot, he looks like a terrifying embodiment of doom (reminiscent of the homeless gatekeeper behind the diner in Muhlholland Drive). In the book, this moment might have been interpreted as an “evil omen” about Anna’s feelings, but here it’s also a visual representation of how the privileged see the poor.
To parrot the selective interests of the upper class, Anna Karenina petrifies moments as if they are happening on a stage. Like we might remember a play, only the dramatic parts remain and anything in between is left out. To achieve this, Wright chooses musical cutting rhythms that slip one scene cleanly into the next. Hardly ever do we see standard filmic bridges such as establishing shots. Additionally, the production design and costumes look like vivid memories because of their garish colors and high level of detail. The design also adds an even greater divide between the gaudy upper class and the forgotten faces of the drab lower class. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography thankfully doesn’t indulge the theatricality with too many tricks, instead creatively using practical effects like mirrors, lens flares, and halo lights to illustrate a world disconnected from any reality besides their own singular minds.
More so even than his past four films, Wright’s iteration of Karenina put all the director’s grandiose whims on display. Yet, against the backdrop of impending revolution, Anna Karenina’s superficial qualities reflect a world that can be oblivious to the needs of others. By turning this staid and regal life into child’s play, Wright comments intriguingly on the walls people throw up. The result, Karenina teaches, will gradually become a tragic society hidden behind semantics, decorum, and class privileges. [B]
To be fair to the film, the theatre angle came about because of budget restrictions, which gave writer Sir Tom Stoppard the excuse to indulge in his slightly mental excesses of imagination to compensate. Don’t get me wrong, Stoppard’s a helluva playwright and an impressionist take on Karenina obviously suited Wright’s taste for the, uh, sumptuous, but I agree with you that the resulting work is a bit of a mess.
I wonder what Tolstoy would’ve made of it all, it’s hard to picture an adaptation that could be any more diametrically opposed to his own vision… Or my impression of what he/Wright and Stoppard were aiming at, anyway.
I didn’t know that about the budget constraints. Stoppard and Wright certainly did a good job of disguising its necessity. I was fooled into thinking this was a specific vision through and through. I actually liked the film quite a lot, but I agree that it was such an enormous departure from the novel and it felt scattershot at times.
Of course this is complete conjecture, but I think Tolstoy may have liked Wright’s version. Surely he would have spent a century sitting through such staunch renderings of his dramatic intentions that Wright’s rendition may have been a breath of fresh air.
I gather they intended to do something more straight and chocolate box period drama like the first 2 films in Wright’s unofficial Keira Does Lit trilogy, but when it became clear they weren’t getting anything like the budget required they had to get creative. It was clearly early enough in the production not to be a problem in the end.
I thought they did an admirable job all told, and besides, the world needed another faithful Tolstoy adap like it needed another Pride and Prejudice adap, so cap doffed.
I actually quite enjoyed P&P, even though Austen stalwarts were appalled that it didn’t culminate in a double wedding.
Tolstoy became pretty sanctimonious in later life, and with the crazy beard and birdsnest hair to go with the moral rectitude it’s not hard to imagine him going all Alan Moore over every film adaptation of his ouevre regardless of merit. To be fair, I don’t think there’s a Tolsty adap out there that can match League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for car wreck atrocity, but the other ones seem serviceable enough if you like comic book movies.
Seriously, Google Tolstoy and Alan Moore. Am I wrong?!
That was typically long-winded…
Before I say anything, I should admit that I haven’t read the book and that instead I watched Anna Karenina purely as a film. Visually I thought it was very impressive, although some of the stylistic choices became tiring over the run time. I also felt at a distance from the characters, finding it very hard to empathise with anyone, particularly Anna. This harmed my enjoyment of the film – with hindsight I might have preferred a simpler approach to telling the story which emphasised its emotional depth.
I sort of agree, though I don’t know that I would have wanted to see another straight-forward costume drama. I definitely think there’s a coldness to this approach. I felt like I was watching characters go through the motions of plot without being engaged with it. The only thing that really kept my attention was the visual design.
I’m so glad you reviewed this film. I’ve been kind of ‘eh’ about going, thinking it’s been adapted into film so many times it would be a complete snore. Going to check it out now. Thanks!
I’m with you on these kinds of films most of the time. But this one isn’t what you might expect. I definitely recommend!
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