REVIEW: 'Anna Karenina' Is So Wright It's Wrong − Beautiful To Behold But Empty Inside

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'Anna Karenina' review

There's a five-minute tracking shot in the middle of Joe Wright's 2007 film Atonement that is impossible to forget once you've seen it. A wounded Robbie (James McAvoy) is on the beach at Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated, and in a nightmarish, beautiful single Steadicam take he wanders past crowds of soldiers, burning cars, horses being shot, a beached ship, a choir singing, the ferris wheel still spinning in the ruined background. It's a mind-boggling piece of work, requiring immaculate timing and choreography, and it takes you right out of the movie because it's there to show off.  

As impressive as it is from a production standpoint, the shot takes your focus away from the story and puts it on the mechanics of what's happening on screen.

Wright's new adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina lives in the hollow clockwork world of that shot. From a filmmaking perspective, it's a gorgeous shadowbox of a production, filmed largely in a single location: a set resembling a run-down theater that was built on a Shepperton Studios sound stage. It starts with the sounds of an unseen audience settling down — there are no visible viewers of this story other than ourselves — and closes in on a proscenium arch as a curtain goes up. The scrim behind it reads "Imperial Russia, 1874."

Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) is on stage, receiving a shave. When a door opens off the side, it is to a snowy street exterior in Moscow. He pays a visit to the family governess he's having a fling with, and when he heads home, through a backstage area, he opens a door to see his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) weeping over evidence of his infidelity. The scene sets the story into motion as his sister Anna (Keira Knightley) comes to visit in an attempt to save their marriage.

Anna Karenina isn't a filmed stage production in any way — it lives within this theoretical theater while not being confined to it. Characters stride up wooden stairs into bustling rafters that stand in for a city street, or walk through a bureaucratic office that, as the camera rotates, is pulled away and restaged as an upscale restaurant. Musicians wander through the space providing a soundtrack to the transition as it happens in front of our eyes. It's an incredible thing to behold, at least at the start. Wright is clearly a fan of Aleksandr Sokurov 's Russian Ark, and the intense cleverness of his direction and the way Anna Karenina revels in artifice set the film apart visually from typically glossy film adaptations of classics that gleam with assured self-importance.

But the gorgeous look and stage work and the way the movie connects impossible spaces — backdrops lift to reveal the Russian countryside, a grassy field running down the stage into the orchestra — is only a temporary salve. The unfortunate truth is that beneath the initial brilliance of its stylized setting, the film is just as dramatically inert as a more stuffy, traditional take on the material might have been. Scripted by playwright Tom Stoppard, the film labors to fit Tolstoy's sprawling story into its two hour and ten minute runtime by drawing its characters with minimal lines.

The film may be experimental, but the adaptation is actually fairly traditional, if briskly efficient. Anna, a Saint Petersburg aristocrat married to the stiff but good and moral Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), meets the handsome cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) when departing the train for Moscow. Everyone expects Vronsky to propose to Dolly's sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), but he falls for Anna, following her home to Saint Petersberg and around to the parties, operas and other frilly gatherings until he wins her. As Anna struggles with wanting to leave Karenin for Vronsky, a scandal that would result in her being shunned by society, Kitty comes back around to Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the earnest, shy childhood friend of Oblonsky whose proposal she at first turned down.

The performances in Anna Karenina are strong, albeit built around a story told in shorthand, and the actors sometimes feel like they're staging recreations of famous paintings rather than embodying characters. Knightley, lit sumptuously and dressed in luxurious gowns, stands out among the performers-as-props, but she can't portray the complicated journey of a character who gives up everything for love, only to doubt and regret it. In this condensed version of the story, she seems more like someone who dithers for a few hours before throwing herself in front of a train.

Wright has said that his inspiration for this adaptation was that the aristocrats at the time of Tolstoy's novel were constantly on display and observed in society, living their lives as if they were always on stage. But this Anna Karenina feels like a diminishment of the story, not the essence of it. Rather than a tale of an affair that would have been fine had it not turned into a more serious love that broke societal rules, Anna Karenina feels like a group of people play-acting at passion. They hit all the famous elements in the story — the train station, the ball, the races, the running off together, the suicide — without a sense of them as a coherent whole or as anything other than opportunities for innovatively staged sequences. It's a beautiful creation, but a remote and empty one.

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  • Jack Cerf says:

    I disagree about the Atonement tracking shot. The theme of the movie is the difference between unpleasant fact and the things we write to disguise it. The tracking shot is there to contrast the well known and widely loved but deeply sanitized legend of Dunkirk as a triumph of British pluck and sang froid with the reality of a chaotic balls up, just as Briony's fiction is contrasted with the miserable and incurable real consequences of her adolescent lie.

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  • Zack M. says:

    Knightley carried this movie. Even her character's suicide was well done.