Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 21, 2012 7:30 pm 
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A miss is as good as a mile

After a progress from classic to uplift, then pop action with Pride and Prejudice, then Atonement, then The Soloist, and finally Hanna, Joe Wright goes back to literary classics in filming Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Anna Karenina. It's a grand, glittering, beautiful production with an admirable cast, amazing costumes, dances, and sets. It's also in the view of many, a very serious miscalculation, because all this glitter, plus a "Brechtian" "staging" of much of the action inside "a large, derelict nineteenth-century Russian theatre," to heighten, presumably, the audience's sense of the artificiality of Russian aristocratic life, has the effect of seriously undermining the emotional resonance of what is meant to be, and hitherto usually has been, in the many screen adaptations of Tolstoy's masterpiece, a deeply emotional story.

Without necessarily going as far as the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle ("You know there is something seriously wrong with Anna Karenina when you start rooting for the train"), one is put off at the outset because the action looks more like a musical or a ballet than a dramatic feature. Office bureaucrats come in and out in formation and stamp documents in unison, like a percussion orchestra, pumping their arms up and down together. Anna (Keira Knightley) flits in an out of scenes in a succession of dazzling high-dress outfits and curious asymmetrical necklaces (to show that her life is askew, no doubt). Perhaps the most memorable scene is a dance, the one in which Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) switches from Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander, the Queen in A Royal Affair) to Anna. It is skillfully staged by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as Leslie Felperin of Variety puts it "to make the dancers look like graceful automatons." They twist and turn, overlapping their arms in complicated, rather astounding symmetrical patterns. It's as impressive as it is distracting. Everything in this movie is like a painting of a lady in which the rendering of the dress is so beautiful it detracts from her face. There is a famous one of a French countess by Fantin-Latour, and the countess infuriated the painter by having the bottom of the painting cut off. That unfortunately would not work here. You'd have to cut away everything.

Wright miscalculated in choosing his "alienation" effect of the many scenes, including even a horse race, "staged" in a theater, but he also undermined it by going only half way. The actors do not doff their costumes and go down to their 21st-century garb when they walk from one set to another as Brecht would have done. They remain always in costume, so the "fakery" is maintained. Appaently Joe Wright's parents were puppeteers. This must have given him, Tim Robey of The Telegraph speculates, an "unashamed love of the proscenium," and also leads him to manipulate his cast like puppets, just as he has doll houses inside houses and toy trains anticipating the trains between Petersburg and Moscow and the one Anna will throw herself in front of. But the "stage" effect is one he plays with only now and again, seeming to forget it for long periods and then go back to it. It's all very fascinating, having the back of the stage strip back to reveal a real snowy landscape, or a snow-covered train. But one loses track of what, if anything, it's got to do with Tolstoy's adulterous wife, her infuriated husband Karenin (Jude Law), or her frivolous young cavalry lover Vronsky.

The actors are various, many admirable, if lost in the shuffle. Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) is played for comic relief, as if everybody, amid the artificiality of staging and movement, were not frequently providing that. Stoppard's adaptation is doubtless a lot more verbose than here; remember his exhaustingly talky Russian revolution trilogy The Coast of Utopia of a decade ago? Readers can see, because the screenplay has already been published as a book. He has given more space than other film adaptations to the subplot of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the idealistic farmer-aristocrat and Tolstoy surrogate who's in love with Kitty, but has to wait till she gives up on Vronsky. Vikander and Gleeson are charming, and one would much rather spend time with them than the main triangle of the grumpy, self-consciously un-handsome (and relatively Russian-looking) Jude Law, the angular, screechy or alternately hysterically gay Knightley, and the superficial pretty-boy popinjay Taylor-Johnson, a porcelain doll with fluffy peroxided blond hair and a silly little curlicue of a ginger mustache. This Vronsky is utterly unworthy of throwing away one's life on. But he is matched by Knightley's brittleness (which has been justifiably but not flatteringly compared to her unconvincing performance as the mad Russian Jewish woman Sabina Spielrein of Cronenberg's arid A Dangerous Method): Knightley and Taylor-Johnson may deserve each other, but Jude Law is from another movie. Only Law, though he looks and acts deliciously formal and solemn and authoritatively stuffy, sounds wrong in some key scenes, speaking in an unnatural, stagey hoarse whisper that only enhances the sense that Stoppard's dialogue is neither English nor Russian, and these are not real people speaking.

As others have mentioned -- but Richard Brody of The New Yorker has written about this most fully and eloquently -- the Tolstoyan theme of the tragic adultery of a woman married to a man of impeccable character and stolid temperament who "has an affair with a dissolute young officer, and comes to grief" has already been treated better this year. Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz, "nominally" adapted from a play by Terence Rattigan and one of the year's best films, is very close to Tolstoy. Davies presents the theme in an impressively simple, direct, emotionally profound and deeply resonant way. Wright's grandiose and flashy misfire is not a patch on Davies' quiet triumph. In The Deep Blue Sea you feel the obsession, you get inside it; you feel the desperation. Joe Wright's Anna Karenina has all the trappings. There's the erotic affair, the deep infatuation, the wronged husband, his forgiveness, the wife's continuing wrong, society's rejection. And on cue if a bit late to Mick LaSalle's taste she throws herself in front of the train, an image frozen and celebrated in deep red, like a music video. But none of it has any emotional depth.

Wright seems to be grasping for the glittering, magical kind of artificiality you get in some of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's films, notably The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. But he doesn't strike the right note, and he oughtn't to have taken on Tolstoy to try to do it. And this is 2012, not 1948 or 1951. We need Davies' authenticity and grit, not flash and filigree.

Joe Wright's Anna Karenina debuted at Toronto and opened simultaneously in the UK and other countries 7 Sept. 2012. Limited US release began 16 Nov.

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