Slavic soap opera

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina.

In these days when hardly any movie idea stands a chance of being funded and distributed by a Hollywood studio unless it conforms to a formula that has survived extensive test-marketing, you’ve got to hand it to any producer or director who’s willing to take a chance on an approach that’s a bit more challenging to the viewer. So, ten points for audacity to director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), who has tried to present Leo Tolstoy’s massive tale of doomed love among Russian aristocrats, Anna Karenina, in a format that sets it well apart from the many Annas of the filmic past. The trouble is that his unorthodox staging, while commendable in concept, just doesn’t work onscreen.

Wright’s structural conceit is to use a 19th-century opera house as the main set, with more than half of the scenes staged there, regardless of where they are actually supposed to be taking place. Willing suspension of disbelief might be possible if the entire story unfolded within the confines of the theatre, or only the scenes that are theatrical in setting, such as the ballroom sequence in which the bored married heroine steals the spotlight – and the suitor – from her young debutante kinswoman-by-marriage Kitty (Alicia Vikander). What happens instead is that a scene set plausibly on the stage or in the seating area of the theatre morphs into one where the theatre becomes a highly stylized stand-in for someplace much less appropriate, such as a horserace. Then, without explanation, the camera takes us outside the theatrical setting again into a more naturalistic scene.

There’s no apparent rhyme or reason to the director’s choices, and the shifts of location seemed merely distracting to this viewer. The movie lost me as soon as a character starts walking around the catwalks above the curtain and begins to encounter scruffy street people, as if passing through an alleyway. This is followed by a transition into a more realistic setting in a train station (the train-related foreshadowing in this movie is way too frequent and heavy-handed, by the way).

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I couldn’t help comparing Anna Karenina unfavorably to another big, sweeping epic that relies heavily on the use of vintage theatrical sets, and also happens to be my favorite movie of all time: Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise. In the latter case, the settings work because those particular scenes really are supposed to be taking place in a theatre. Carné doesn’t try to squeeze scenes that happen elsewhere in there, even though the symbolism of theatre spins a metaphorical thread throughout the whole film. If that’s where Wright derived his inspiration, he carried it way too far from the source.

When we finally get to see places that really look like (and were in fact shot in) Russia, such as Levin’s rustic dacha set among sun-washed wheatfields, it feels like a sudden respite from a long spell of cabin fever. And it may be that the director’s intent was thus to contrast the authenticity of rural life with the claustrophobic world of high society in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, Tom Stoppard’s screenplay gives short shrift to the story of the idealistic Levin (winningly played by Domhnaill Gleeson), who is generally thought to personify the author’s own point of view and serves as the main moral and emotional counterweight to the impulsive Anna.

Keira Knightley’s performance in the title role is garnering a lot of praise, and she certainly embodies Tolstoy’s tragic heroine with spirit. In fact, she almost seems to be playing the character as bipolar – especially at the manic end of the spectrum, when she seems as luminous as a person dying of a fever. At moments the portrayal bleeds over into melodrama, reminding this viewer of Vivien Leigh waving a carrot at the obviously painted sky while swearing that she’ll never go hungry again. If that scene in Gone with the Wind makes you choke up with emotion rather than chortle with skepticism, you’ll enjoy Knightley in Anna Karenina.

Less successful, for very different reasons, is the casting of the two men in the story’s love triangle. Jude Law is just too sympathetic and nuanced as Karenin, Anna’s prim and proper statesman husband, who continually gives her the benefit of the doubt even after she has admitted to betraying him. He’s given a receding hairline to make him look too old for his wife, and costumed in wire-rimmed glasses and a dark grey, Mandarin-collared dressing gown to make him look stiff and fussy. But there’s still no getting around Law’s handsomeness, which makes it hard to swallow that Anna finds him dull and repellent.

And even with his restrained manners, Karenin seems much more virile than this movie’s Count Vronsky: a badly miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson. In his crisp military officer’s uniform, with absurdly dark mustache and eyebrows set against blonde hair and a pasty complexion, he kept reminding me of Eric Idle dressed as a waiter in a Monty Python skit. His chin looks so weak, contrasted with the determined jut of Knightley’s long jaw, and his character seems so wishy-washy that it’s tough to buy all these young Russian society beauties throwing themselves at him.

There’s strong acting to be found in many of the minor roles, though I found it difficult to keep track of all the different countesses, princesses and whatnot. Matthew Macfadyen is commendably restrained in what could be a caricatured role as Anna’s philandering brother, Stiva Oblonsky, and Kelly Macdonald is especially good as his long-suffering wife Dolly. Ruth Wilson really gets her teeth into the role of Vronsky’s cousin and Anna’s friend, the jaded and amoral Princess Betsy; and Emily Watson is chilling in her brief scenes as the lofty Countess Lidia, whose approval or disapproval rules the fates of many in Anna’s wealthy social circle.

Much must be left out when such a huge novel is adapted to the screen, but the third act of this version of Anna Karenina does seem excessively telescoped. We never really get why Karenin keeps dithering about granting Anna a divorce, and the narrative skips too quickly through her growing paranoia and mistrust of Vronsky after she has run off with him. Neither her passion for him nor her subsequent compulsion to self-destruct seems entirely comprehensible without the interior monologue of the novel, and perhaps that’s inevitable in the translation to the film medium.

Still, I can’t help thinking that I could have stuck with Anna longer if I hadn’t been put off right from the beginning by the overly stylized staging of this movie. It’s a gorgeous and ambitious failure – but a failure nonetheless.

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