Monday, December 10, 2012

Hear the Train a Comin': ANNA KARENINA

If I may borrow and twist around the opening line to a famous Leo Tolstoy novel, in fact the very one soon to be in question here: average filmmakers are all alike, but every experimental filmmaker is experimental in his own way. That’s not completely true, but it’ll go a long ways towards understanding the career trajectory of Joe Wright. He began his career with a confident adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride & Prejudice, moving on to a showy, but deeply felt, adaptation of a modern literary classic, Ian McEwan’s Atonement. His third film, The Soloist, was a contemporary based-on-a-true-story flop that felt like a misjudged attempt at conventional restraint. After that, rather than turning back to the realm of the literary adaptation, Wright leapt into more daring territory with Hanna, a near-masterpiece actioner with fairy tale overtones. Built from a potentially schlocky script, it is a film enlivened by a fracturing, emphatic use of bold compositions, a dreamy visual mood and intense sound design. He’s proven himself a filmmaker torn between the stately and the off-putting, between holding emotion close and letting pure sensation take over.

Wright’s latest film is a return to the world of canonized literature, namely Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. (It’s the one I hinted at earlier, although you may have gathered as much from the headline above.) Rather than representing a retreat to the familiar, it’s easy to see while watching the film unfold that Wright has quietly become one of the most experimental mainstream filmmakers working today. Whereas Pride & Prejudice plays it safe and stately, Atonement was filled with bravura show-off camera moves and narrative twists, and Hanna was an artful display of art house action filmmaking, Karenina finds Wright trying out his most daring experiment yet. Tolstoy’s massive novel about an unhappily married Russian woman has been abridged and thinned by playwright Tom Stoppard, but it’s Wright’s idea to place scenes set in Moscow and St. Petersburg inside a theater, literally making, for the people of high society, all the world a stage.

Through this conceit, Wright brings a kind of cinematic theatricality, heightened and ornate in ways the stage wouldn’t allow.  He uses every bit of the theater too, with characters framed by gas lamps downstage or climbing up into the rafters and rigging, descending into the aisles – the seats are gone, the better to become a racetrack or dancehall. The sets are flat, but detailed, as scenery scrolls by outside carriage windows and a forest of false trunks sit upon the floorboards. The fakery here is obvious and elaborate. Complexly choreographed camera moves through shifting stagecraft turn an office into a street into a restaurant around a moving character. It’s a sort of wonder, bold aesthetic artifice that becomes an enclosed experiment that manages to contain a sweeping historical epic in an interior. The scenes that leave the theater city for countryside of endless snowy or vibrantly green and yellow fields are bracing retreats from the rigid constraints of society.

But such a determined focus on physical spaces does not reveal similar interest in mental interiors. The film’s visuals are a sometimes intoxicating, sometimes repetitive blend of ballet and Brechtian conceits, but this splendid feat of technical artistry walls off the cast’s most excellently engaged performances. It’s a film as distant as it is exquisite. As Anna Karenina herself, Keira Knightley brings a kind of static suffering, to which Wright is happy to add heavy-handedly haunting by foreshadowing. (Do you hear that train whistle blowing? How could you miss it?) The film follows Tolstoy’s plotting, but its rush to fit so much in a relatively compact 130 minutes leaves emotion and motivation as nothing more than shorthand to be glimpsed dancing across the actors’ faces through the set design.  The rest of the cast of characters, from Anna’s husband (Jude Law), lover (Aaron Johnson), brother (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife (Kelly Macdonald), to a handful of Countesses (like Emily Watson and Olivia Williams), play their parts very well with the performers sinking convincingly into their roles. But they seem almost like an afterthought. They’re prominent and well cast, but feel like just so many cogs in the artful narrative machine.

Trapping Tolstoy’s characters in a constructed artifice of splendor may make for good metaphor and fine visual filmmaking, but it’s a difficult construction with which to invite an audience in. I found myself desperately wishing I were enjoying the movie more than I was and for a while I did. But in the end, standing outside looking in grew too difficult and, though I admired the sights, I couldn’t ponder the themes or feel the emotions for all the metaphor-embellishing bric-a-brac in the way. Wright is no less an impressive director for trying, but his adaptation is sadly an experiment that comes up empty in the end.

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