Joe Wright directed one of the most extraordinary moments I’ve seen in the last two decades of movies. In his 2008 film of Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement,” he shows us, in one jaw-dropping continuous and unbroken shot, a full surreal panorama of the Battle of Dunkirk.
As far as I’m concerned, anyone who could put THAT on screen is a man to be reckoned with, no matter what the circumstances.
That’s why Wright’s new film version of Leo Tolstoy’s great masterpiece “Anna Karenina,” with a script by Tom Stoppard no less, was one of those movies I most looked forward to in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It opens here today, and it’s fascinating.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s good, because it’s not.
It does something daring and wildly stylized that may also be pointless – or, at the very least, hopelessly self-defeating. What Wright and his brilliant screenwriter (let’s not forget that along with being one of the great living playwrights, Stoppard also wrote the script for “Shakespeare in Love”) did in more than half the film is to locate the action in a somewhat cheesy 19th century Russian theater, all to emphasize the artificiality of social convention in Russian society, circa 1874.
Society itself, then, is a theater containing nothing but actors whose performances will be good, bad or indifferent (not to mention inappropriate, as in Anna Karenina, the aristocratic wife who falls for the dashing Count Vronsky and leaves her husband, Alexi, one of the two best-known cuckolds in all literature, the other being eternally clueless Charles Bovary).
OK. But here is Tolstoy, almost at random in the great Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of “Anna Karenina”: “The need to live, increased by her recovery, was so strong, and the conditions of life were so new and pleasant, that Anna felt herself unpardonably happy. The more she knew of Vronsky, the more she loved him. She loved him for himself and for his love of her. To possess him fully was a constant joy for her. His nearness was always pleasing to her. All the traits of his character, which she was coming to know more and more, were inexpressibly dear to her. His appearance, changed by civilian clothes, was as attractive to her as to a young girl in love. In everything he said, thought and did, she saw something especially noble and lofty. Her admiration for him often frightened her.”
And if you’re looking for any inkling of any of that in Wright and Stoppard’s “Anna Karenina,” you’re in the wrong theater. This, for much of the way, is like opera without music – or even worse, a delirious operetta without music.
It isn’t because Keira Knightley isn’t game to give us one of Western literature’s two most famous slaves to Romantic passion. In her slender, angular way, Knightley is a headstrong Anna, but very much a distance away from sensuality.
As for Aaron Johnson as the Vronsky who could inspire such devotion, he is, like so much of the film, an idea you have to take on faith rather than actually see in front of you.
Nor is it that Wright won’t go beyond that narrative theater, on stage and backstage. Suddenly he’ll also show you a vast snowscape, just to remind you that he knows where his story is set (either that or remind you that he’s seen David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago,” too).
Then again, some of the pictorial splendor might seem like a slick magazine ad or a spread in Vanity Fair.
What does it say about a version of “Anna Karenina” if the most impressive performance in the film is by the actor who plays proper cuckolded and correct Alexi – in this case Jude Law?
Lest you need reminding that it’s always good to have Stoppard at the keyboard, you’ll have plenty of lines to do that. This, from the standpoint of 2012, is very much a world where “laws are made by husbands and fathers” (not passionate wives), where romantic love is “the last illusion” of St. Petersburg society.
It is simply not possible to tell this story on screen with ANYONE AT ALL, ANY WAY AT ALL, and not have Tolstoy’s story triumph tragically at its end.
But this “Anna Karenina” was a brave and daring cinematic feat that might have been so much better transferring all of its abundant energies to the art of cinematic illustration, Merchant/Ivory style.
Two and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson
Director: Joe Wright
Running time: 130 minutes
Rating: R for sexuality and violence.
The Lowdown: Wildly stylized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece about passion, adultery and social constriction in 19th century Russia.