[Review] – Anna Karenina

29 Nov

Title: Anna Karenina
Year: 2012
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Michelle Dockery, Emily Watson
MPAA Rating: R, some sexuality and violence
Runtime: 130 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 64%
Metacritic: 63

There are some directors who just really do it for me visually, and Joe Wright is certainly one of them. Considering his directing career has spanned less than a decade and is now at five feature films it’s amazing just how much he’s been able to distinguish himself from his peers, his ability to really compose shots as moving paintings is gorgeous and those long tracking shots he’s known for are absolutely mesmerizing.

Yes, The Soloist was a bit of a misstep for him, basically I believe due to the fact that the material just didn’t fit him as a director, but come on, Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and last year’s Hanna (an A- for me) are all undeniable successes. So, yes, I love his work dearly and I’ll always be first in line when I hear of a new project from him. That’s especially true when, like with his new one, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, it not only has him reuniting with the lovely and talented Keira Knightley, but it also sees him taking a distinct visual approach, even by his own standards. The film, from what I gather, has been quite divisive among critics and audiences. Me? I know exactly where I stand: I loved this movie.

The divisive factor comes precisely from that bold aesthetic approach Mr. Wright took. Instead of filming this in a rather straightforward, conventional kind of style he shot the whole thing on a soundstage. That’s ambitious, especially when you consider that they really had made all the plans to shoot it on location in England and Russia before Mr. Wright decided to take such a huge 180 and shoot most of it basically in a theater. That poses a lot of really harsh challenges for everyone involved, from actors to cinematographers trying to work weird angles to the lighting people to the set design. Yet with Mr. Wright at the helm and such a terrifically talented cast and crew this works wonders.

I don’t know precisely why he did it, but I though it was just such a daring and ultimately rewarding decision. After all, the work he’s adapting is a timeless classic that has been told time and time again and will continue to be told for years to come, so taking such a unique approach at least helps to differentiate oneself from the pack. Some people will say this is style over substance, that it’s Mr. Wright showing off, but trust me when I say it’s not, if anything I think this approach allowed him to break the mold and instead of making a typical costume drama (though the costumes here are amazing) be able to deliver a film that speaks volumes about really great themes and issues.

Yes, I’ll be the first one to admit that this is a flawed film, but you have to take it in full stride, flaws and all, because it’s also just magically enchanting. Visually it’s absolutely dazzling, and once again Mr. Wright will garner comparisons to a painter of the highest order with how he frames and does some of these shots. The performances, though, are what ultimately make it shine alongside the heavy stylization and make it more than just a pretty movie, everyone here is really, really good, Keira Knightley especially. The three best performances she’s ever given us have come in Joe Wright films, and his three best movies have featured her, so let’s hope they continue sticking together.

Tom Stoppard, the genius playwright who wrote Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil and won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, gets to pen this new take on the epic love story. And I actually believe the script may be the second-to-weakest link here, and I say that even though I kind of loved it and thought it was as great as it could have possibly been. We’re in late 19th century Russia and we get our titular character questioning her happiness as we delve into a story that’s really all about the capacity we all have for love, which in the end is what makes this such a classic work of literature.

Now, I guess saying Mr. Stoppard’s screenplay is one of the weakest links here is a bit unfair in the sense that he had the hardest job of the bunch here, that’s why I followed that assessment by saying that I still loved it quite a bit. This is a story, after all, that’s about so much and that is just a massive tome of a book that’s maybe the greatest one to have ever come out of Russia, it’s about love and sacrifice and about women and a satire of the society of the time. It’s virtually impossible to really gather the whole spirit of the novel into a movie unless it’s one that’s three hours long or so (this one clocks in at 130 minutes).

However, even if you too feel the screenplay is a bit lacking, the visual stuff will surely be more than enough to keep you entertained. It’s kind of like Mr. Wright went ahead and made this hyperbolic musical à la Moulin Rouge! but instead of song-and-dance it’s a sweeping romantic drama, and it’s all performed on a stage! It’s such a crazy and ambitious film I really cannot wait to see it again, one that will no doubt make some Tolstoy purists quite mad but that even they probably have to admire because of the huge gamble Mr. Wright dared to take on it.

The thing is that the novel offers hundreds of pages of basically just Anna having this breathtaking internal struggle, it’s such a comprehensive dissection of her inner desires that can afford to take it’s good time sinking its hook on your heart. The weapon Mr. Wright had at his disposal to overcome such a monumental challenge was the face of Keira Knightley who with her eyes in just a few seconds really does manage to transmit all of those emotions to you and get you wholly invested in her story here.

She really is a pitch-perfect Anna Karenina. Yes, she’s obviously gorgeous, with the eyebrows and angles in her face being so damn perfect, not to mention sheer charisma that real movie stars are made of. That, of course, lends itself beautifully here, but one must remember that Ms. Knightley is also a brilliant actress. Anna Karenina is a really tough character to play, a woman with power and yet so fragile, a woman in love and yet with her mind telling her to take a different path.

That it all comes together so perfectly here is a testament to Ms. Knightley’s skills as an actress that she’s been polishing and showing off in every recent performance (I ranked her performance in David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method from last year as my 17th favorite from a leading female of that year, this will keep her on that list this year, just much higher).

As for the supporting performances, you have great actors here, but the two main ones come from the men that split Anna. Jude Law plays her husband, Karenin, a character that’s also quite complicated because on the one hand you kind of get why Anna thinks him a simple-minded bore, but you also see the good in him, Mr. Law really delivers a fantastic performance. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, however, as Vronsky, the younger man who seduces Anna, really didn’t do it for me.

When I said the script was the second-to-weakest link here, it’s because Mr. Taylor-Johnson’s performance is the weakest one by a mile, and the only part of the movie that I just didn’t think worked at all, really. He just doesn’t look the part, for one, and you just can’t buy him as this devil-may-care authority figure who takes control of Anna’s heart, the kind of role that half a decade ago Mr. Law could have played in his sleep, actually.

The rest of the cast is, I’m really glad to report, quite good. Matthew Macfadyen is here for a reunion of sorts after playing Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice; Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and who was recently seen in the last two Harry Potter movies, is actually kind of brilliant here in a role that’s really quite great; Alicia Vikander, who I just saw in A Royal Affair pops back up again here and is an actress who I think we’ll see really good things from in the future; Kelly Macdonald is fantastic as always and Olivia Williams is a natural scene-stealer as Vronsky’s mother.

Anna Karenina is the second most ambitious film of 2012 (no one can take that title away from Cloud Atlas) and it works because of that. Props to Mr. Wright’s supreme directorial vision, props to Melanie Oliver‘s fantastic editing (she also did last year’s wonderful Jane Eyre), props to Sarah Greenwood for the production design work that should easily score her a fourth Oscar nod (two of her three are for Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, natch), props to Seamus McGarvey for the breathtaking cinematography, props to Keira Knightley for delivering perhaps the best Anna Karenina we’ve ever seen, she (and her perfect face) are the real deal, here’s to her reuniting with Mr. Wright sooner rather than later.

Grade: A

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: