NOTE: This review first appeared on this site on September 7, 2012 after I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. I am reprinting it here as it hits theaters this weekend.
I love Joe Wright‘s work. Outside of The Soloist he’s delivered three amazing films in Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Hanna, but I’m sorry, Anna Karenina is an example of directorial masturbation at its most damaging. This film comes across as a self-indulgent “art” picture lacking heart, soul and any semblance of emotion. It, and it’s characters, are empty vessels I’d prefer I never spend time with ever again.
Based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1870s serial novel, Anna Karenina begins in 1874, set in Imperial Russia. We’re introduced to a load of characters, all more recognizable by face rather than name and it’s the faces of the actors that stand out more than most of the characters.
Oh, there’s Keira Knightley, looking radiant as she dresses in her evening’s best. That’s Jude Law and is his hair thinning on top? There’s Aaron Johnson and boy does he look dapper, but what’s with the mustache? And look, Matthew Macfadyen is cornering the market on becoming the next Jim Broadbent.
I should add a note right here, Macfadyen is one of Anna Karenina‘s only highlights and the Broadbent comparison is meant as a positive. Macfadyen is a joy to watch on the big screen just as much as is the star of Topsy-Turvy.
All our stars are dressed to the nines and the set decoration is lovely, but that’s where we reach our first major roadblock, and where Wright appears to want us to focus most of our attention. You see, Anna Karenina was predominantly shot all in one location, the front of the house, upstairs, down and backstage of a dilapidated theatre. Backdrops will glide into the rafters, the stage lights will provide a luscious amber glow and doors will fall from the ceiling only to be opened seconds later. It’s wonderfully unique, but it is also wasted, tedious and perplexing at the same time.
I’ve always appreciated Wright’s fluid filmmaking. His ability to move from one scene to the next, navigate space and manage some amazing tracking shots. The thought he would be able to expand those techniques here with sets that could change without the cut of the camera was alluring to say the least. Yet, only once does he truly take advantage of his setting in a wonderful tracking shot that involves hundreds of cast members all hitting their mark without a single cut. It’s the best scene in the film, it happens early on and it was the last time this movie held my interest.
Soon, the appeal of the technique used to make Anna Karenina becomes a wall between the story itself, which is muddled at best, redundant and aggravating at worst.
Princess Anna Karenina is played by Keira Knightley, relying on the same talents you’ve seen from her countless times before and really bringing nothing new to the table. She could just as easily be Elizabeth Bennet or Cecilia Tallis and you’d hardly know the difference. The only real difference being is this isn’t Pride and Prejudice or Atonement, this is 1870s Russia and Anna is married with a child to Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), but her marriage is tested when she begins an affair with the “dashing” Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Johnson).
Nothing wrong with what’s going on so far, but it’s from here the film devolves into longing looks, glances cut short, whispers, staring across crowded rooms, more whispering, crying, doubting, shouting, jealousy and tears.
Anna quickly falls in love with Vronsky and the two can’t live without one another and not a moment can be spent in any room without breathless sideways glances. As Anna and Vronsky navigate their love Wright uses a series of visual flourishes, relying often on tactics in which his protagonists navigate crowded rooms in which the people in them are frozen in time. He also amplifies the sound to the point a finger tapping on Anna’s nose registers in the speakers. I have no idea why no more than I know why Anna and Vronsky stare at each other across crowded rooms and opera halls over and over again to the destructive and repetitive, bitter end.
What initially intrigued me about Wright’s attempt at a largely singular location shoot — using the stage for his setting — was the intimate nature it suggests and the need to rely on his actors’ performances and character development. No dice. It seems his goal was to shoot small and attempt to play it off as big. It doesn’t work. As an audience member you are more than aware of the surroundings and as ravishing as the set design may be it all comes across as diversionary tactics, avoiding the crumbling narrative.
So much of the film could have been left on the cutting room floor and for as intimate as the stage setting should have been I felt extraordinarily detached from the story; one great example being a scene between Anna and Kelly Macdonald as Dolly, wife to Anna’s brother Oblonsky. For said scene, Wright uses competing over-the-shoulder shots, neither side matching the other in terms of lighting and the continuity is so jarringly off from one side to the next you can’t help but be thrown out of the picture. Most often I’d call this a nitpick, but it’s one of many times the editing threw everything out of balance for me.
Overall, I can’t begin to express my absolute disappointment in this film. With Wright’s talents as a filmmaker it would seem he either bit off more than he could chew with his decision for a stage set story or he depended on the manner in which he was telling the story more than the story itself. Either way, the result is a period-set soap opera with lavish production design and over-the-top and forced performances.
That said, and to be fair, while I’ve already praised Macfadyen, I must also give kudos to Ruth Wilson playing Princess Betsy and a brief appearance from the wonderful Shirley Henderson late in the film. These three help make the film tolerable throughout, if only slightly, but they can’t save it altogether.
Hopefully Wright has gotten whatever desire he seemed to feel to flex his “artistic” muscles with this film out of the way, because it comes off phony, pretentious and unskilled. These are three adjectives I would never attribute to the man himself or his prior work, which is what makes it even harder to write. All told, Anna Karenina is beautifully designed, ill-conceived and dreadfully redundant and beyond all that, it’s a film I will gladly never see again.