Monday, November 26, 2012

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

Joe Wright's previous literary adaptations have been awkward affairs, defined by a perennially miscast Kiera Knightley and an ostentatious visual style that overpowered whatever sense of respect with which he attempted to treat Austen and McEwan. The same is true of The Soloist, which tries to take mental illness seriously but aestheticizes it to such an extreme degree that the whole movie beatifies paranoid schizophrenia. Last year's Hanna worked better than his first three features precisely because the stakes of the material were lower, allowing the director to indulge himself even more and revealing that his prior films actually exhibited some form of restraint.

Anna Karenina reunites the director with his leading lady and, more broadly speaking, canonical adaptations. But it resembles the director of Hanna more than the maker of Atonement, at last jettisoning Wright's lip-service reverence for his source novels to fully bend a great work of literature to his own ends. If over-direction marred his earlier works, Wright here gives in fully to his id, making over-direction its raison d’être. If that means the director gives less precedence to the book being adapted, it marks no change from his earlier films save that Wright is finally being honest with people. By dropping the pretense, the most over-directed work by the most notorious over-director currently working stands clearly as his best work to date.

Tolstoy’s writing is renowned for its expansive scope, its ability to survey wide swaths of characters and social strata; Wright’s adaptation of the author’s novel, however, is characterized by geographical myopia, shrinking the St. Petersburg social circles where much of the novel takes place to a single, theatrical set. Proscenia border shifting backgrounds as the camera dives, ducks and soars around ever-shifting levels of the stage, and a model train that seems to come right out of Wes Anderson’s films serves as a cheeky mode of transport. The entire city of St. Petersburg, even, resembles one of Anderson’s dollhouse worlds, and Wright uses this setup in a similar manner: to establish the cloistered privilege of its inhabitants.

Where the British director differs from the American one, though, is in the manner he focuses not on the emergence of a maturing individual from the shelter afforded by wealth but how that shelter can expel those who disrupt the status quo. The person in question is the titular princess (Keira Knightley), whose life of comfort is thrown into chaos by the intrusion of the young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into her life. Introduced as a suitor for Anna’s niece, Kitty (Alica Vikander), Vronsky soon turns his attentions to Anna, who finds unknown desires awakened within her and must decide whether their pursuit is worth her sudden ostracism from high society.

Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey use Sarah Greenwood’s astonishing production design to the fullest in visualizing the way society turns on Anna like antibodies locking on to a foreign contaminant in the blood. Wright arranges attendees at the ball where Anna and Vronsky share their first, highly charged dance in static tableaux. The other dancers freeze in action until the new couple sweep past them, while insert shots of onlookers in silent judgment break up the romance with the forces that will conspire to destroy it. The film’s best sequence, recreating Vronsky’s doomed horse race within the closed set of the giant stage, uses shots of Vronsky against a black void (and a flat wall painted with spectators enjoying an outdoor race) for a deliberately false effect compounded by the horse tripping off the stage and falling into the orchestra pit. Anna cannot contain herself, and all heads turn not toward the shrieking horse and shaken rider but the hysterical woman who just gave away her true, socially unforgivable feelings.

In such moments, where members of St. Petersburg’s elite become immobile in disapproval and rejection, Anna Karenina almost resembles the Godard of Passion, and the primary Russian influence on this film may not be Tolstoy but Aleksandr Sokurov, whose Russian Ark clearly informs some of the swooning movements through this world. That admittedly leaves the film cold, but then the focus is not on the passionate romance and midlife crisis it engenders but the hypocrisies of high society that result from these “transgressions," the most visible of these hypocrisies being the perpetual forgiveness of adulterous men as Anna is spurned. Why, even Knightley’s miscasting as a woman old enough to look back on a life suddenly filled with regrets could almost count as a metatextual commentary on the way these films are cast with the young. (The film’s biggest unintentional laugh stems from Knightley reminiscing about being “your age” with Vikander, a scene that comes off like a pompous senior’s advice to a freshman.)

The closest the film comes to tragedy is in the recurring juxtaposition of Anna’s breakdown in St. Petersburg with a character who gets to live a much happier form of separation from it. Konstatin Levin (Domhnal Gleeson) lives on a rural estate outside the dizzying, interior world of Russia’s cultural capital, demonstrating that a person of privilege can exist outside those walls. But then, Levin got to leave of his own volition, and he plays by the sanctimonious rules when he returns to town to try and win Kitty’s hand. As one chirping member of high society says of Anna in the film’s most focused self-summary, “I’d call on her if she’d only broken the law. But she broke the rules.” In that sense, the most affecting aspect of Anna Karenina is what a sick joke it all is.

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