If you've seen Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, you might think you know what you're in for. And you'd be wrong.
February 11, 2013
If you've seen director Joe Wright and Keira Knightley's subtle and affecting period dramas Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, you might think you know exactly what you're in for with Anna Karenina. And you could not be more wrong.
This is an Anna Karenina full of risks. It's a melodrama with the zippy editing of a Guy Ritchie film, the Gallic filigree of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and, above all, the flourish and symbolism of a work of theatre. In fact, pretty much the whole film has been transplanted to within the confines of a theatre, a conceit that brilliantly suggests a society ruled by pretence and observation. In this world, society balls play out on stage, affairs unfold within the wings, and when a character visits the poorer part of town, he climbs three storeys into the shaky rafters. When the St Petersburg elite sit down to watch a piece of theatre, the curtain lifts on the next scene in their lives.
Does it hammer you over the head with this metaphor? Absolutely. Are we bothered? No. Anna Karenina is knowing in its heavy-handedness, and all power to it for embracing the brashness of what is, after all, culture's most populist medium. It doesn't always succeed, but where it takes you is mostly great and always interesting and that's the bigger achievement.
It's kind of extraordinary to read that the whole world-within-a-theatre idea only came 12 weeks before the shoot, because it's a striking marriage of theme and methodology. Wright already had two names known mostly for their imposing stage work attached to the project screenwriter Tom Stoppard (indeed, many of the scene changes call to mind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose expertise informed the smallest gestures as well as an expressive waltz alongside ever-intense film composer Dario Marianelli, and they each play their part in taking the movie one bold step further away from the expectedly realist to the dizzyingly theatrical.
Leo Tolstoy's famously vast novel has of course been whittled down, so that everything that happens on screen elucidates the central theme of infidelity and whether it is an impulse "of the animal or the soul". By the time Anna (Knightley) dives into the arms of besotted military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), desire and repercussion has been examined from every angle, and we feel for both the lovers and Anna's betrayed, dispassionate husband, Karenin (Jude Law, who's excellent here). It's also still a tale of two cities (St Petersburg and Moscow, in a Sydney-Melbourne-type rivalry) and the country, with their contrasting characters and morality.
It's easy to conclude that this Anna Karenina is a superficial portrait of a superficial society, but that would be to dismiss how emotionally powerful it is in key moments, particularly an intricately choreographed society scene that communicates the oppressiveness of gossip. At other times, mainly when the campiness loses its originality and grabs at cliche, the film goes off the rails, and it sadly detracts from Anna's fate.
Wright and co. should be applauded for having the guts to do things differently and birth an Anna Karenina unlike any of its predecessors. It's worth watching, and more than once.