English director Joe Wright can marshall the teeming forces that constitute the cinematic apparatus on the grandest of scales with a tremendous fluidity. And, boy, nobody knows it better than him. If there was ever any chance of the cameras simply bearing witness to a shift in thought, atmosphere or emotion in his new adaption of Anna Karenina, Wright has done a painstaking job of ensuring that any such event was quashed under a behemoth of elaborate tracking shots, movable décor and razzle dazzle choreography. Not a whole lot of slipping elegantly between the internal musings of various characters here. Doesn’t sound much like Tolstoy does it? I suspect fidelity to the source material was not high on Wright’s priority list.
This Anna has a big design concept at its core, though the execution of this concept is hardly consistent. All the world’s a stage—until it isn’t. The first several scenes of this spin on Tolstoy’s sprawling, multi-character tale of marital infidelities and class angst in 19th century Russia are confined entirely to a baroque theatre, with Anna (Keira Knightley) arriving in Moscow to help rescue her brother’s damaged marriage and soon after becomes inexplicably entranced with the young military officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The way Wright shifts from scene to scene by using toy trains, fake snow and sweeping gestures is undeniably virtuosic and increasingly tedious. If there is any real tension, sexual or otherwise, between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, it gets lost in all the swirling, swooping and cutting. But, hey, they look great in those costumes, and Taylor-Johnson’s blue eyes really pop when underlined by that blonde moustache.
Some interesting casting: Jude Law plays Anna’s ultra-reserved husband, a government official. I guess someone figured it was Law’s turn to get cuckolded for once, and the actor does some impressive work here, invoking a mixture of repressed pain and rage doing internal battle with a desire to be forgiving and above it all. Elsewhere we find a very interesting, clearly devoted young actor named Domhnall Gleeson playing Tolstoy’s other protagonist Levin, the young man who flees affluence to join the workers in the fields and admire nature in all its ferocity and splendour. Gleeson’s nicely complimented by the Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander, who plays Kitty, the girl of Levin’s dreams who initially turns him away in favour of Vronsky. For some reason these actors have much stronger, subtler scenes than those shared by the stars. Do Wright and playwright Tom Stoppard, the film’s scenarist, simply believe in true love between the young and innocent while disbelieving in the operatic lust and longings indulged in by the slightly older cheaters and manipulators? I suspect that this contrast has more to do with Wright’s knee-jerk response to drama, already more than evident in earlier films like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement: the bigger the stakes, the more you got to dress it up!
I applaud chances taken with form and I have nothing against a little flamboyance, but the endless directorial flaunting in Anna just doesn’t connect to the material in any sort of sustainably interesting way. Heartless pizazz doesn’t make for much catharsis, and even the merciless wheels of a train can’t conjure much feeling for the fate of poor Anna K.