Movie Review: Anna Karenina- Joe Wright Explores His Inventive Technical Side but Loses Himself in His Cold and Passionless Adaptation

Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” This insightful sentiment is taken quite literally by director Joe Wright in his latest period drama based on the Leo Tolstoy novel “Anna Karenina” as he utilizes a theatrical stage as his focal set piece to transition from scene to scene. This initially brilliant tactic, although forgotten in the middle, was most likely conceived by the screenwriter Tom Stoppard and it definitely brings a true sense of wonderment to the visual and technical elements of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. However, Russian literature is an ambitious undertaking especially adapting it for the cinema and what unfortunately happens as this period drama unfolds is that the awe inspiring cinematography, the beautiful set transitions, and the emotional score all end up being wasted as the film gets lost in translation. Joe Wright’s simpatico relationship with actress Keira Knightley has always served both of them well for performance but when dealing with such a deep novel about love, infidelity, class, and obligation the focus on the actress needs to capture all of these conceptual ideas or else it will fail. Unfortunately in Anna Karenina the final product is a long winded, callous, and passionless period piece that has moments of cinematic brilliance complemented by believable performances. It’s a true shame that Anna Karenina follows the same path as Joe Wright’s previous film Atonement in the fact that they both offer promising and highly organized openings but eventually get lost in their own technical grandeur.

Adapting any Russian novel is the task of a masochistic kind of mind so it’s only natural that a renowned playwright such as Tom Stoppard should attempt to tackle this endeavor. All of the important concepts are layered throughout the script as we are fully initiated into Imperial Russian culture all brought to life through marvelous set design, musical accompaniment, and fitting costumes. These themes include a double standard of infidelity, the bravery of following your heart, and the cynical view of marriage of obligation versus the rare marriage for love. However, many of these themes get lost in the technical grandiosity of Joe Wright’s enrapturing yet emotionless technical choreography. His devotion to his lead actress took over his devotion to the script, which unfortunately guides the film away from the themes that are supposed to make the lead sympathetic and instead make her seem selfish. This isn’t the point of the novel nor is it the point of Stoppard’s script so it really lies in the fault of cinematic execution. Joe Wright does indeed offer brilliant sequences that are practically every filmmakers dream but technicality can also diminish the emotional transference you need from your audience. David Fincher made the same mistake in his callous but beautiful The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Joe Wright had already made that mistake with Atonement, though many failed to address it. Anna Karenina isn’t an inspiration script or adaptation wise but it shouldn’t be blamed on the writer and instead be blamed on the director.

Even if Joe Wright deserves blame for the disconnected and ultimately passionless feel to his period drama about love he should be praised for the first half of Anna Karenina, which showcases a meticulous plan of foresight through cinematography, set transitions, and editing. Wright enjoys his use of tracking shots if the four and a half minute shot from Atonement showed us anything and he continues his appreciation for a moving camera in Anna Karenina with the help of his trusted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. The cinematography is almost reminiscent of the Russian film Russian Ark, though not as pre-planned since that’s an hour and a half single shot. But the graceful movements are still there and it’s almost as if the characters are actually dancing with one another, especially in the opening introductory sequences. Whether it’s the elegant following of Oblonsky (Matthew MacFayden) as he changes coats in a choreographed fashion or tracking Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) as he searches for his brother in the changing theater setting the camera never stops moving and is undoubtedly rapturous. Basically he is taking what he did in his adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and giving it a boost of adrenaline for a greater sweeping feeling. Another intriguing planned out attribute is the fact that many of the scenes change in our presence as though we are witnessing this story taking place on a theatrical stage. Characters weave in and out of changing set pieces or are followed closely by the camera to eventually reveal a different setting making these ingenious choices extremely captivating. However, both the cinematography and the rapid set changes eventually diminish in quality as the second half of the movie takes a drastic tonal shift from elegance to depression. It’s a choice that makes sense relating to the character but it is a drastic shift that is noticeable and partially alienating. So despite all these glorious techniques it means nothing if it doesn’t complement the core of the story or the emotional connection to the protagonist. With Anna Karenina we have another film that demonstrates the potential there is for creative ingenuity regarding the technical aspects of film it can’t be something that noticeably stands on its own.

Even though the technicality makes the overall film experience as cold as the snow featured on the sets, it doesn’t diminish the quality of the performances. Joe Wright and Keira Knightley have made a total of three films together and perhaps this is their collaborative effort in getting a fully layered performance from her. She demonstrates an ability to be extremely multifaceted in her portrayal whether it’s a fragile nature or a determined command of desire. She isn’t over the top as she was in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method or simple as she is in the Pirates franchise, but rather she taps into the strengths of subtlety and complexity. Perhaps it helps to have a cast of brilliant supporting roles, such as the always remarkable Jude Law whose self-confidence and control is quite evident in every scene he is present. But two names that deserve great recognition are Matthew MacFayden and Aaron Johnson. MacFayden practically steals the show whenever he’s on the screen as the sort of comic relief but also contains inner conflict that is the opposite of his jovial exterior. And up and coming actor Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy) definitely rivals Knightley in the appropriate ways that make their connection even more believable on the screen. It’s a disappointment that Anna Karenina couldn’t keep its second half focused and tight enough to allow these performances to be truly memorable but instead regresses into the true embodiment of a Russian novel: tiresomely long and languidly beautiful.

For every intriguing creative choice that is made by Joe Wright and his team for the execution of Anna Karenina, including the dazzling set piece changes or the graceful camera work, there is an equally bad creative choice made in the last half of the film. It’s a film that possesses a duality of tone in each of the different halves. This lack of consistency that separates the film into two sections that rival each other in tone makes the film feel incomplete, disjointed, and indolent. The first half of the film might very well sweep you off your feet with its elegance but once the second half begins its descent the whole film begins to fall apart. There are many admirable qualities including Seamus MacGarvey’s cinematography or the high class performances from Keira Knightley and Jude Law, but ultimately this is another botched attempt by Joe Wright to make an epic period piece drama. Unlike with his last film Hanna where the technical experimentation complimented the character and the journey, Anna Karenina gets lost in its grandiose creative choices. It’s never good when a story about love and passion feels quite empty and passionless. Hopefully Joe Wright will be able to use these ingenious technical achievements for a project that isn’t as ambitious as a Russian novel.

Grade: C+/B-

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