Anna! Karenina! The! Musical!
Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is considered by many the greatest novel ever written, and has been adapted so many times (two of them starring Greta Garbo!), one is tempted to name any version "The Last Remake of Anna Karenina." So, the task for director Joe Wright and scripter Tom Stoppard must have seemed daunting, or as one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's later husbands stated it: "You know what you have to do, you just have to find a way of making it interesting."
Well, this one is interesting, alright. And it hues closely to Tolstoy's novel in the way that a CliffsNotes Edition sticks close. All the plot points are there, the characters whittled down to their bare essences, or eliminated altogether, and breezily delivered in a theatrical manner, save some significant exceptions. Truth is, Wright makes this version of Anna Karenina the way Baz Luhrmann would, as a grand, operatic experience staged in an extraordinarily choreographed with the emphasis on the "arch" (as in "playfully and affectedly roguish") in Proscenium Arch.
Jim Emerson had a fascinating article (based around Skyfall) on his "Scanners" blog on the difference between a "theatrical" film and a theatrical film and its use of space as defined by the limitations of the frame and a stage directors' tendency to reflect that frame with its own limitations resembling the dimensions of a stage. Wright fully embraces that concept and goes further; for the main story of the hoi-polloi and their social and political gamesmanship, all of the action takes place within the false spaces of a theater (at times even using the rafters as locations for traditional street-scenes): train and carriage scenes are decidedly set-bound with no effort made to reflect a "real" world outside the windows; transitions are made "in-camera" without editing, so a very stagy and choreographed bureaucratic work set-up with synchronized rubbing stamping (set to Dario Marianelli's interesting score) segues to a restaurant scene by merely having the "extras" trade in their black business suits for waiter-whites; a formal society ball is not an intricate commingling of dancers that Wright so effectively engineered in Pride and Prejudice, but is an elaborate ballet, where the participants barely touch and their hand movements are intricately swanning in nothing that approaches a traditional dance (at times, to keep track of the principals, the foreground dancers in our field of vision "freeze" to better make out the focus of our attention). Like Francis Ford Coppola's set-bound version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, It's all very elaborate, "stagey," false, and at times clever but, a lot of the time, merely "showy," like a musical with no libretto, something to separate this "Anna" from the more realistic, even if filmed in-studio, versions.
The performances run that way, too. Keira Knightley is an exasperating Anna, conflicted but fatally committed to fully expressing whatever is on the surface of her heart. Her P & P co-star, Matthew McFadyen is a burlesque cousin Oblonsky, fatuously showy in a way that reminds of Kevin Kline performing a burlesque role. Jude Law—not one of my favorite performers—here is exceptional as Anna's cuckolded husband, and is so restrained and non-theatrical, that it sets him apart from almost every other performer, isolating him, and is a good short-hand way of showing why Anna might be dissatisfied with him. Olivia Williams has a small part as the Countess Vronsky, whose son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the very florid object of fascination for Anna.
|Anna (Keira Knightley) runs from Vronsky at the Ball|
and experiences a little fore-lightening from an approaching train.
It's dangerous in a Joe Wright theater.
But, almost the entire film is deliriously fascinated with the artificial that it undercuts the very real passion and consequences of actions of the people in the film, reducing them to "players" as opposed to human beings. I say "almost" because Wright does change things up to "open up" the segments featuring Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who already have their disappointing encounter with Vronsky and move on. When they reunite, their segments are set in a real world of sky, clouds and fields befitting the couple who exemplify wisdom, forbearance and patience. Wright puts them in our world, relegating the others to an artificial world that is essentially stage-managed (even at the end with a coda of Karenin and the remains of his family, it is contained in the stage-world that Wright has chosen to house his film.
It's different, even interesting in an oddly disrespectful manner, as the flightiness of the bourgeoisie and their concerns are merely shadow-play and window-dressing—it is true to an extent—but by pushing the metaphor so aggressively, it undercuts any feeling one has for the players in the majority of the film itself, and reveals itself as resembling the tut-tutting of the hypocrites who turn against Anna. I'm not sure that Tolstoy had that intention (even strained through Stoppard), and this film might have benefited from a less facile presentation that required less stage-craft and something more resembling (I don't know) empathy?
Anna Karenina is a Cable-Watcher.