Three stars. Rating: R, and rather harshly, for mild sexuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.30.12
Artistic vision is captivating — or clever — to the point at which it calls too much attention to itself, and interferes with the story.
|Try as she might, Anna (Keira Knightley) cannot shake her growing infatuation with the|
dashing Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The resulting affair will prove scandalous in
every respect ... not that this heavily stylized film makes us care a whit.
In effect, the tail then wags the dog; we’re too frequently aware of the artifice, at the expense of plot and character development. Empathy and identification become difficult, if not impossible.
Director Joe Wright’s handling of Leo Tolstoy’s venerable Anna Karenina is radiant and ferociously inventive, thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s luminescent cinematography and, most notably, Sarah Greenwood’s brilliant production design. The film is a thing of great artistic beauty, and we cannot help being enchanted — initially — by its sheer, magnificent theatricality.
But the artifice soon becomes tiresome, which exposes the oddly flat and vexingly mannered performances. Celebrated playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard undoubtedly deserves equal credit (or blame) for this vision; I’m disappointed, however, that this abbreviated, heavily stylized handling of Tolstoy lacks the narrative snap and sparkling dialogue that brought Stoppard a well-deserved Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love. (He also was nominated, along with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown, for writing 1985’s Brazil.)
Indeed, despite all the bosom-heaving melodrama present in Tolstoy’s novel, this newest adaptation of Anna Karenina is a curiously bloodless affair.
Wright’s approach best can be described as a stylized blend of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (absent the music), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and the popular stage farce Noises Off. Luhrmann’s flamboyant musical told its story as the characters improbably broke into song; Greenaway’s saga unfolded as the camera tracked horizontally, apparently seamlessly, between events taking place in various settings ... as if characters wandered into and out of fully dressed stages in half a dozen impossibly connected theaters.
Toss in Noises Off, for its behind-the-scenes antics — the stuff we’re never supposed to see — and the result is, well, fascinating. For a time.
The primary set piece, then, is a once-beautiful but now decaying theater, intended to represent the aristocratic rot of 1870s Russian high society; this building’s various sections, dressed appropriately, serve as the story’s many locales. We find Anna (Keira Knightley) and her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), at home in one corner of the massive stage; as Anna — for example — exits the room, she wanders “backstage” between curtains, scrim and backdrops, perhaps changing her wardrobe in order to be properly garbed as she enters the setting for the next scene.