Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Anna Conundruma

     Director Joe Wright (Hanna, Atonement) makes some very bold choices in this latest film adaptation of the classic Russian novel Anna Karenina.  He employs a play within a film technique with scenes that take place on an actual stage, transactions between locales that happen across a theatrical catwalk, etc., played against scenes that take place on location like in a normal film.  This approach, one assumes, is meant to play up the artifice of all storytelling mediums, while juxtaposing this perspective with ultra-realistic moments that demonstrate how invisible the artifice can be.  I love the concept of this show them the strings, then hide them again method.  It's a very creative way to view an old and oft told story with fresh eyes.
     It should have worked, and it did on most levels.  It was technically brilliant, an absolute feast for the eyes, but more on that later.  The problem with such a stylized and experimental take on a film is that the acting must be that much more engaging to make us believe in the characters (especially when you keep reminding us that they are characters).  I hate to single out actors unduly, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not having a good year.  His performance in Savages brought that film down, and I'm afraid that the same can be said here.  He is so prancing and preening, and over the top as Vronsky that I lost all emotional investment in every scene he was in.  When coupled with the swirling bits of changing scenery, I lost all of my disbelief.
     But Ms. Keira Knightley, she swung for the fence in every scene, in the best possible meaning you could attribute to that metaphor.  In her moments by herself, as well as with the film's other principles (not so much Vronsky), she would inevitably draw you back in.  Jude Law (who would have been a great Vronsky fifteen years ago) is slightly stilted, but mostly impressive as Karenin.  Particularly impressive is Alicia Vikander as Kitty.  Coupled with her performance in A Royal Affair (review forthcoming), she is becoming one to watch.  Her scenes opposite Knightley, and those opposite Domhall Gleeson, are some of the most redeemably captivating of the film.
     As I said, the film is really quite amazing technically, beautiful to watch.  I can't argue too hard about any of its four Oscar nominations (Costume, Production Design, Cinematography, and Score).  I could have even bought nominations in Make-Up and Hairstyling or Editing.  Jaqueline Durran is an obvious heavy hitter in the Costume race, but I wouldn't be surprised if cinematographer Seamus McGarvey might not be a bigger threat than anyone (including me) took him to be, despite the obvious genius of his lensing on this production.
     While I might not have liked Anna quite as much as I enjoyed Mr. Wright's last film, Hanna, I would still say that it is a grand experiment which almost worked and is well worth checking out.  It is HIGHLY worth checking out if you are in the mood to stare blankly at the screen while amazing pictures float by.  I'm just saying.  4 of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Of Snubs and Triumphs (response to and analysis of Oscar nominations), Savage Men in Oslo (Savages review)

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