Anna Karenina Review
This daring approach to classic Tolstoy struggles to escape the obvious style-over-substance criticisms.
It’s no surprise that so many fans were disappointed when the director, lead actress, and many of the supporting cast and crew members from such great modern classics as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement reunited for... this. Whilst a daring approach to classic Tolstoy, Edgar Wright’s disjointed feature struggles to escape the wholly justified style-over-substance criticisms levelled at it.
The story, if you didn't already know it well, concerns Anna Karenina, a rich socialite married to a politician. Whilst it would appear that she is quite content - she has a young son that they both adore, and she wishes for nothing - a chance encounter with the young suitor to one of Anna's friends sees unknown passions sparked within her. She soon realises that she has never known this kind of side to a relationship - her marriage at 18 was not for love, but for status - and, against all odds and opposition, she embarks on a dangerous affair which threatens to destroy not only her life but the lives of those around her.
Kudos to Wright (and screenwriter Tom Stoppard) for managing to streamline a nine-hundred word beast of a novel into a movie with a runtime of little more than two hours; for stripping the dozens of interweaving story arcs down to three or four core strands - it's more easily digestible than Tolstoy would have ever believed possible and yet, at the same time, still quite rich and textured. Unfortunately, though, Wright didn't stop there, choosing to set almost the entire film on an impossibly elaborate set (i.e. not an actual real one: here the curtains draw wide to reveal snowy landscapes and noisy train stations) partly as a means to symbolise the particular period in Russian history where, to a certain extent,the whole country was working like a well-oiled machine.
Wright pitches us halls full of bustling workers beavering in perfect time with one another, or actually plops his cast members atop a stage just to hammer home the symbolism. The curtains draw, sets are shifted and changed like some kind of an elaborate puzzle (his version of scene transitioning) and even the stage-like circular ceiling is removed at one point to show us some fireworks in the sky.
The trouble is that it is style for style's sake, and the daring approach just does not gel well with the material. It's not the first time that adventurous, over-stylisation has undone the work of a competent filmmaker (and it won't be the last if The Great Gatsby is anything to go by) but unfortunately it does leave the audience out in the cold whilst the director plays with his toys by himself.
I feel sorry for Kiera Knightley as well. I've always thought of her as more than just a pretty face, and credited her for some of the more daring roles she has taken (A Dangerous Method, Never Let Me Go) but, as a result, she hasn't had all that many big roles. Certainly her work with Wright up until this point could be regarded as the best of both worlds: enabling her to shine as an actress in superior productions which receive not only critical acclaim but also commercial success. But Anna Karenina could mark the end of this era. Still, maybe her upcoming supporting role as Cathy Ryan opposite Chris Pine in the Jack Ryan reboot will give her enough limelight to do what she does best - daring indie dramas - in between Ryan instalments.
At least you get to enjoy her performance here though. Knightley's tragic heroine, Jude Law's sympathetic husband, Matthew Macfayden's philandering brother and Kelly Macdonald's outraged sister-in-law - they're all great, with Knightley shining, Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) finally fully shedding his standard charming wide-boy play, and Macfayden (reunited with Knightley after Pride and Prejudice) on scene-stealing form. Even the budding relationship between the two soft-hearted souls Domhnall Gleeson (Shadow Dancer) and Alicia Vikander is quite touching (the 'scrabble' game is a prime example of Wright's artistic talent working perfectly). Only Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Savages, Kick-Ass) makes for a somewhat unconvincing love interest, but even he is saved by some stunningly choreographed scenes - the dancing flourishes, where everybody freezes but Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, are another example of style done right.
None of this matters though if you can't handle the odd stage setting, and, unfortunately, this may be the case for many out there. It's a shame: I'd have liked to have seen Wright adapt this classic in the same way he handled Pride and Prejudice, and Atonement. Alas, it was not meant to be.
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