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]