Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Anna Karenina (2012) – Review

Review: Anna Karenina is highly ambitious, lush and phenomenal – a completely insane adaptation of a literary masterpiece. The film is about Anna, a Russian aristocrat in the late 19th century who throws away everything to engage in an affair with Count Vronsky.

Most literary adaptations are fairly straightforward – some rigorously follow their source material, while others take liberties. With Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s novel is immensely dense with rich detail and tons of characters. It is not just about Anna and her story; it is about Tolstoy’s Russia at that time and place, every nuance and intricate facet of daily life. Deciding that trying to make a completely faithful adaptation of such an extensive work would probably lead to a dull film (and still not quite do it justice). Instead, director Joe Wright has made something entirely different and brave.

Anna Karenina seems a prime candidate to be just a straightforward period drama/costume drama (and Wright has done well making films like that in the past), but his adaptation is dangerously ambitious (much like say The Clash’s Sandinista! or the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas from earlier this year) and highly stylized. Taking such a bold risk leaves the film exposed to be very polarizing (something some will find brilliant and others very frustrating). Fans of the book that want a very faithful adaptation (who seem to fail to understand that film is a different medium than that of a novel and thus stories should be told in different ways) will likely not like the film.

Wright sets the film really in two areas – for Moscow and St. Petersburg, the scenes take place inside a theatre with actors moving between changing sets, backdrops and artifices. Characters play their roles within society and government, as scripted by the social conventions of the time. While all the time, in view of an audience (the other members of the society) constantly watching their every move. Everything is a tempered act put on for the benefit of others. The poorer people of the cities occupy the rigging and catwalks, while the grand ballrooms and government halls take center stage. The theatre is used as a metaphor by Wright to express the restraint and superficiality of Anna’s world – nothing is real. Wright’s camera is also an active part of these scenes, vigorously gliding through the sets and around characters (almost in a whirlwind). At first, this whole concept is strange and even unsettling, but as the film progresses and the audience becomes accustom to the world of the film it becomes common and not as noticeable (making the final shot of the film more staggering – almost as if the audience has forgotten that all the action in the cities has been confined to a theatre with nothing but fake backdrops).

The second area that Wright uses is a much more naturalistic space, which accompanies Levin when he returns to his country home and works in his fields (they are actual fields). Wright does this to both juxtapose the differences in city and country life and to illustrate the difference between Levin (a romantic) and those wrapped up in the high society life of the cities (where everything seems just a show put on, void of deeper emotion). Visually, Wright makes sure to give the countryside a very sweeping natural beauty (as opposed to the subterfuge of the changing theatre sets).

Wright’s film is also very much about love. He focuses on two stories: Anna’s affair with Vronsky and Levin’s love of Kitty. Anna begins the film naïve to love. She is happy because she does not really know what it is, that is until she meets Vronsky and feels something so strongly that she risks her place in society (a society completely constructed and ruled by men) to be with him, seemingly to forget or not care that she is but a player on the stage, and that everyone is watching her. Vronsky is very charming, but never feels completely trustworthy as a hero (someone that will not break Anna’s heart, like say Levin is to Kitty). This feeling that the audience has translates to Anna’s perception of Vronsky as well. She never completely trusts him, which sends her into fits of jealousy and self-destructive behavior, and yet she loves him above all else leading to her losing everything to be with him. In the construct of Wright’s narrative (the cities being staged in a theatre), Anna goes off book. She does not say the lines she is given and hit the marks laid out for her. She disrupts the order of things and thus stands out amongst the others and becomes an outcast. There are scenes as well with her husband Karenin who seems out of step in his own realm (in the government meetings) when he faces the truth about Anna’s affair. Wright’s narrative and visual structure for the film visually illustrates just how disruptive Anna is in such a rigid society of social rules.

Levin seems lost in the society in the city, constantly calling on Oblonsky (Anna’s brother, a man who constantly cheats on his wife and yet is still accepted among his peers) for help to fit in. His love is Kitty, a young woman just debuting in society. Kitty is fascinated and lured in by the colors and spectacle of it all. She does not see that it is all superficial, and rejects Levin initially. But, she comes to see the flaws of her beloved high society and is hurt and jaded by the lack of true emotional connection. Thus, when Levin realizes that she is his true love and tries to win her heart a second time, she accepts. When Kitty moves with Levin away from the fixed structure of the city and into the naturalism of the country, she throws off the strict terms that governed her conduct, allowing her true self to shine (a person with a kind heart). While Anna and Vronsky’s story ends in tragedy, condemned by the aristocracy, Levin and Kitty strive. This again can be taken as juxtaposition between the intransigent and shallow society of the city and the warmth and community of the country (also expressed by Levin working the fields with his serfs).

Visually, the film feels a bit frantic, as Wright’s camera is constantly moving at a brisk pace and the sets are constantly changing on the fly as characters move between spaces. However, the end result of all this kinetic energy is that Wright has formulated the film as an emotional ballet (of visual splendor). The production design also plays into this, as the colors and costumes very much represent the characters. Anna, in particular, has an array of beautiful outfits – their color scheme seemingly matching her mood, while Vronsky is primarily in white (saving her from a life without love) until he leaves her. Levin wears earthy tones and Kitty loses her refined garments once she takes on her life in the country. All of Wright’s visual choices support the narrative.

Now, with all this visual radiance and spectacle and Wright’s imposed narrative device, what about the characters? This film is not easy on the audience. First, they must adjust to Wright’s cinematic world (which takes a few scenes, because he does not ease the viewer into it – everything flies at the viewer all at once). Then, the audience is introduced to tons of characters, many of which play small but specific roles. However, Wrights does do a great job with his main characters, though at the same time Anna’s motivations may seem not spelled out enough for some viewers. She lives in a marriage somewhat void of real affection, attraction and love. Thus, when Vronsky (who also happens to be very handsome) courts her, she is taken in by him and feels things that she never has before, which drives her decisions. While the audience pities her, as she loses everything, she is not overly likable (like Kitty or Levin), which then makes it more difficult for the audience to strongly connect with her (which is why Wright gives a lot of screen time to Levin and Kitty as well). She is just someone who thinks she is above the rules and ultimately pays a heavy price.

Anna Karenina is a classic tragedy, adapted many times over, but maybe never as ambitiously and visually stimulatingly as this.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Joe Wright has always had a knack for using a very fluid camera, from the dancing/party scenes in Pride & Prejudice to the action scenes in Hanna, as well as his fantastic long takes in his films (notably in Atonement). In Anna Karenina, Wrights seems to have built off his work in Hanna (which was his most visually aggressive film before this). Much like the final scene in Black Swan in which the camera seems to dance with Nina, his camera here seems completely untethered, free to roam anywhere and everywhere, seamlessly transitioning between sets as characters move in and out and backdrops change. It is breathtaking. While most filmmaking, especially in Hollywood (but it is also true among indie films), seems to be becoming more conventional, it is relieving to see an auteur who is still willing to take big risks, and with this film they have paid off.

Dario Marianelli’s score has a wonderful Russian vibe to it (as it probably should). It is beautiful, as it anticipates and accompanies the emotional turmoil and triumphs of the characters. It feels both intimate and extravagant in different moments, much like the film itself (here is a suite). Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is exquisite, elegant and magnificent, especially when the film takes on a more naturalistic look (where the use of light is angelic). Sarah Greenwood’s production design, however, steals the show (which is saying a lot as Marianelli and McGarvey both deliver some of the year’s best work). The array of colors is astounding. Each costume (designer by Jacqueline Durran) or set is wonderfully crafted to fit the tone of each character or scene (reminding me at times of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago).

The cast is dazzling as well, with tons of great little bit parts and strong leads. Matthew Macfayden and Ruth Wilson (who is almost unrecognizable, at least she was for me – knowing her solely as the scene stealing Alice on Luther) stand out in small roles. Both Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander deliver breakthrough performances as Levin and Kitty, respectively. While most of the characters seem to be shallow and void of deeper emotion, Gleeson and Vikander exude a longing for true connection (which is why, ultimately they find each other). I expect they will both be receiving lots of acting gigs in the next few years. Jude Law has the difficult role of playing Karenin, a man who feels but actively tries to shut himself off from his emotions. His performance is understated and wonderful. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has all the charisma and bluster to make a great Vronsky. He also has a terrific mischievousness to his performance that work very well. Keira Knightley has found her niche in costume dramas. She is ravishing, magnificently gowned in a lush and elegant wardrobe throughout. But she does more than just look the part. Knightley captures the extreme fits of anguish and joyous highs of Anna’s affair with Vronsky, eliciting pity and in the end even heartbreak among the audience as Anna’s life comes to a tragic end. It is another excellent performance from her collaborating with Wright.

Summary & score: Anna Karenina is not going to work for everyone, as it is sure to garner opposing reactions among viewers. However, for those willing to take it in, it is an artistically rewarding and narratively grand experience. 8/10 

No comments:

Post a Comment