Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Anna Karenina

ANNA KARENINA (Joe Wright, 2012)

ANNA KARENINA begins in 1847 imperial Russia with Anna (Keira Knightley), wife of government official Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), traveling from St. Petersburg to Moscow to comfort her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) for the infidelity of her brother, Prince Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen).  While Anna pleads with Dolly to forgive Stiva, something she suggests her relative must do to regain her own happiness as much as anything, the promise of unspoiled love eases the tension in the home.  Dolly’s 18-year-old sister Princess Ekaterina (Alicia Vikander), otherwise known as Kitty, has two suitors.  In anticipation of rich cavalry officer Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) asking for her hand to be his wife, Kitty declines the proposal of Stiva’s friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).

The prospect of Kitty and Vronsky marrying is dashed when he and Anna unexpectedly connect with an animal magnetism that shocks and thrills her.  Although the scandalous affair taints Anna in society’s view and threatens to destroy her, with Vronsky she finds the passion that has been lacking in her relationship with Karenin.  In response, her husband approaches Anna’s relationship with Vronsky as if it is a policy matter. Karenin shares his perspective and a clear set of consequences if she is to continue it.  

Director Joe Wright’s entry to the film world came with his fresh cinematic treatment of PRIDE & PREJUDICE.  The Jane Austen novel seemed as though it had been adapted to death by the time of Wright’s version, but he lent immediacy to the period piece with modern touches and filmmaking verve.  ANNA KARENINA is another giant of the literary world that would seem to invite a staid, classical style, yet once again the director’s bold vision shakes up what might have otherwise been a fusty filming of the canon.
In their version of ANNA KARENINA Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard deliver an audacious adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic of Russian literature.  Much of the realist fiction’s action--everything set in cities--is transposed to the artificial confines of a theater.  Scenery and costume changes occur on camera in elaborately choreographed transitions.  Characters wander into the wings, the auditorium, and above the stage. With nothing incapable of being put on view, the visual strategy makes plain the hypocrisy between the public and private as well as the male and female.  It also pokes fun at urban progress, such as the lengthy tracking shot punctuated with the delivery of an ashtray.

Yet for all of the flashy staging indebted to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, gorgeous cinematography, and sumptuous production design, ANNA KARENINA relies on small, human gestures to convey the depth of feeling and judgment.  Emotional expression tends to be clipped and indirect, with much being communicated through glances and the subtlest of movements.  

Paced like a surging locomotive, ANNA KARENINA plays like the ultimate CliffsNotes, which is both testament to Stoppard’s exceptional adaptation and abridgement of Tolstoy’s novel and acknowledgment of the film’s somewhat superficial center.  Anna’s choice to sacrifice everything for Vronsky merits more inspection but is shortchanged for the sake of expediency.  Even with portions rendered in shorthand, ANNA KARENINA is a stylistic triumph in its exploration of the collisions between love and passion, the rational and irrational, and the moral and sinful.     

Grade: B+

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