Thursday, 20 September 2012
Anna Karenina (2012, Joe Wright)
Joe Wright's adaption of Tolstoy's enduring masterwork is a gliding, flamboyant, and overall shallow experience due to the director's placing of technical wizardry over building affinity with his characters. An unfortunate and frustrating recurring issue within the work of a clearly talented filmmaker that can be argued for this time round due to the trivial nature of the characters and desperate need to repackage a classic for modern digestion.
The tale of a socialite woman's decent into despair as she chooses a life of 'true love' to a young Count over her marriage to her statesman husband, is a timeless and still revelatory example of literature, much regarded as one of the greatest examples ever written. However, despite its profound lasting influence on not just literature but film and art in general, it would have been naive to play it straight when bringing Anna Karenina to the big screen. Audiences after all, especially those not familiar with Tolstoy's novel, may find the unfurling drama all too familiar as what makes the book so rich may seem conventional when translated to film. The approach taken turns the story into a kind of semi-stage play, an elaborate theatre house where the scenes psychically convert on screen before the viewers eyes as the characters roam and inhabit an enclosed performance space. Exterior shots are kept to a minimum with often peripheral details painted on the interior walls. The effect is often jarring, taking a short while to ease into though never stopping short of remarkable. This mode of storytelling makes for the most interesting component of Wright's film but also the source of its collapse in some respects.
Keira Knightly gives one of the strongest performances of her career as Karenina; as an actress she continues to climb great heights to lose her detractors, while she may have a lot more to prove, after her dazzling turn in A Dangerous Method and now this she is certainly developing as a performer and must be appreciated. Jude Law has similarly suffered from a hoard of critics throughout his career but likewise delivers a truly wonderful act as Karenina's good natured yet unloved husband Alexei. His character could so easily be construed as God fearing, a detached man devoid of emotion, obsessed with social standing. Given his screen-time and narrative function it's testament to Law's performance that he is felt to be so tragically human despite his seemingly idealist nature and rigid moral coding. His Alexei is full of compassion and love despite receiving none himself, ending up the most memorable and sympathetic character of this film's mighty ensemble. Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky, the man who passionately falls for Anna and vice-versa, doesn't do much more than create a young ambitious militant man with shallow aspirations, but that was his function. The story, after all, is of a woman's search for contentment and truth in a society lost in fabrication and compromise; the technical inventiveness surrounding the characters, the exuberance of the living set piece they inhabit, portrays the superficial elegance of the city's high life. While juxtaposed against the story of Konstantin, close friend of Karenina's brother Oblonsky, and his quest to marry Kitty, Oblonsky's wife's younger sister, a woman he truly loves, does the film refine itself. Refining itself to show the purity of Konstantin's rural life and sincerity of love compared to the damaging social mores of the city; a great theme in Tolstoy's work that is conveyed rather well here. In fact it's in these moments with Konstantin where the film works best, as we're ceased to be bombarded by the film's roller coaster effect and given the chance to invest rather than being forcibly removed from feeling.
Martin Scorsese one said of his similarly themed The Age Of Innocence, that it was his most violent film, quite the opinion from 'the master of the mob movie'. Yet Scorsese's feelings towards his film rings true and here Joe Wright also does an excellent job of creating the social scrutiny felt by Anna Karenina after her affairs have been aired. The maliciousness of society is unleashed upon Tolstoy's 'Scarlet Woman' shown in the film through striking utility; during a horse race in which Anna unconsciously reveals her feelings towards Count Vronsky and at a restaurant where all eyes scrutinise her every move, Anna's shame is expressed with a Brechtian use of Tableaux Vivant as the room freezes and fixates on her.
Adapting a novel of this magnitude was never going to be an easy task and to a degree Wright has pulled it off. Whether his clear technical adeptness as a director and his refusal to let us get too close to his characters is needed this time round is debatable, as this approach to his work has stifled past efforts. Atonement was more about the bigger picture of human lives than the personal intricacies of relationships, as was the case with Hanna. In the former, the example of how simple misunderstandings and the troublesome subjective viewpoint of personal experience can ruin lives was put forth. With Hanna the inevitable fears of parenthood and destruction of innocence in the world were played out at the expense of emotional investment. Perhaps this wouldn't be such sore spot if Wright's films weren't such platforms to show off his technical virtuosity as a filmmaker, because it only highlights his shortcomings as a storyteller. Whether his pitfalls actually help his Anna Karenina this time round, I'm not sure, but it certainly isn't the failure others have reported it to be. Is Anna Karenina a great film? Not by a long way. Is Joe Wright capable of making a great film? Yes, he just hasn't managed it yet but I know he's got it in him.