Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Tsunami Of Love (a.k.a. WTF?!)

Today's film, Joe Wright's recent Anna Karenina.

Most everybody has read Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, I imagine. Set in Russia in 1874, it tells of an adulterous love affair between a well-married noblewoman and a young army officer, an affair that scandalizes the nobility and tears the lovers' worlds apart. I read the book at least 25 years ago and I remember very little about it. Well, except for the train business. So I'm not even sure how closely Mr. Wright's film follows the book, though I remember the key characters: Anna and Dr. Karenina, Count Vronsky, Kitty. The rest of it rings vaguely true for me.

Well, the basic story rings true; this specific treatment, I'm not so sure.

Director Wright has made several films I admire: Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Hanna. But this one feels like an ambitious undertaking that fails to hit its marks. The screenplay is by Tom Stoppard, and I don't honestly know if my issues are script issues or direction issues--though surely the buck stops with the director. Tolstoy's novel tells a big and compelling story, albeit in a period costume drama sort of way (that is, if you're not into this kind of story you won't care for this film). As source material, it seems there is plenty there without having to tart it up in some way. But Director Wright has opted to dip the whole business in a kind of surreal sauce, with about 2/3 of the action taking place on a theater stage and viewed from various normal and abnormal perspectives. Scenes may take the form of actors rehearsing or of people walking around in a choreographed way, almost like ballet. People exit from train cars onto... the catwalks in the fly tower of an old theatre; people walk through scenes playing instruments; all of it for no reason I can think of. OK, brownie points for being ambitious and thinking outside the box; but what does any of this get us? There is pain and joy and turmoil and devastation that follow naturally from a destructive love affair, and I just can't see how a big dollop of oddity assists in telling this story. Quite the contrary. It's not that the weirdness kills the mood, exactly, but it persistently keeps you removed from the story; it brings a distracting artificiality to the whole business. Or much of it; about 1/3 of the story takes place as you expect. And our slipping in and out of the scene serves no positive function I can discern.

This is nowhere more evident than a key scene that takes place at a formal dance. The treatment here is simply excruciating. One of the key scenes choreographed, it seems, by an insane person. Ludicrous. Preposterous.

Keira Knightley is effective and believable as the mother and wife who self-destructs. This is a good thing as she is in virtually every scene. The other primary cast members include Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfayden, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Michelle Dockery. All are excellent, but I think Kelly MacDonald especially stands out for me. I wonder if she's not the Meryl Streep of her generation: she seems able to do just about anything with winning conviction, and she has just enough everywoman in her to stand out or blend in as needed for her role (much like Streep, it seems). (Thankfully, she is not trussed up like a marionette and made to deliver her lines á la Buñuel.) The story, as mentioned, is set in 1874 Imperial Russia, but as often as not the exterior shots are of what looks like an undisguised model railroad--so perhaps less effort to bring us into the period was expended here than we might have expected.

I see that reviews have been all over the map, but I find I cannot equivocate much. It's a good and moving essential story given a treatment that detracts from its effectiveness.

Grade: C-

No comments: