THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Every so often, a filmmaker will take a radically outside-the-box approach to telling a story. Marc Webb used conceptual asides to get inside the head of a lovesick Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer. Baz Luhrmann embraced incongruity, putting modern pop songs into his period romance Moulin Rouge. Those are cases where big risks paid off. Sometimes, such risks, although admirable, prove to be far less successful. Joe Wright's Anna Karenina was, for me, just such an example.
Based on Leo Tolstoy's classic novel, the film follows the title character (played by Keira Knightley), a socialite who carries out a torrid affair with a cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), much to the dismay of her husband (Jude Law). The affair ends up putting her marriage and her social status at risk. Wright (Atonement, Hanna) doesn't do a straight telling of the tale. Instead, he presents it as a theatrical production, with the actors often delivering their lines in front of a proscenium or up in the rafters. (Unlike Lars Von Trier's similar Dogville, the cast at least gets the benefit of sets.) In one shot, the background actors pick up and play musical instruments while the stage dressing is changed around the stars. For a sequence set at a horse race, the cast sits in the theater balcony while the animals run across the stage in front of them.
Although admittedly an intriguing approach, the theatrical vibe ends up undoing Anna Karenina. Watching such things live on stage would be fine; seeing them on screen is just distracting. After all, isn't the whole point of a movie that you don't need to create artifice in that manner? The attention-seeking “process” serves to distance the audience from the characters and story. I found it extremely difficult to become emotionally invested because the style kept intruding, pulling me out of Anna's journey and making me concentrate on the filmmaking choices Joe Wright was making. Tolstoy's tale is full of lust, betrayal, and scandal, seen through the eyes of a woman experiencing them. Those things don't come across vividly in this unnecessarily showy adaptation. Anna's behaviors seem antic and erratic; it's rarely clear why she's making the decisions that she makes, which waters down their impact.
There is much to admire technically in the film. The sets, costumes, music, and cinematography are all exquisite. You can feel the love that went into physically crafting it. For their part, the actors do what they can with the material, given that their director keeps trying to upstage them with his technique. Probably the best performances come from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is sufficiently sleazy as the morally ambiguous Vronsky, and from Domhnall Gleeson who plays the best friend of Anna's brother, an insecure landowner trying to convince the love of his life that he's worthy of marriage.
Anna Karenina falls into the category of Ambitious Experiments That Don't Quite Pay Off. I respect Joe Wright and his cast for trying to do something unique, for trying to bring a fresh sensibility to a story that's been told cinematically over a dozen times before. I admire the film, even if I don't particularly like it. You know what would have worked better? If Wright had mounted this as a stage production instead of as a movie. It kind of feels as though that's what he wanted to do anyway. Such a theatrical experience would be invigorating. Putting these conceits on film diminishes the power of Tolstoy's work and, quite frankly, comes across as a bit dull.
( out of four)
Anna Karenina is rated R for some sexuality and violence. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
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