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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 48
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Not too tragic

Passion plays only a supporting role in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ANNA KARENINA
Now showing


I'm not entirely sure what I think of Joe Wright's take on Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The Atonement, Hanna, and Pride & Prejudice director certainly tackles the material in his own idiosyncratic way. He and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) have centered the action within the confines of the proscenium, telling the story of Russian socialite Anna (Keira Knightley), her high-ranking politician husband Karenin (Jude Law), and her wealthy cavalry officer lover Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a lavishly designed and constantly shifting stage full of the usual theatrical artifices.

Yet not always. The story opens up into the wilds of a Russian winter, its protagonists walking off the stage into a widescreen landscape - only to go through a new door leading them back inside the theater. It's oftentimes pretty darn spectacular, the visual resplendence of it all bordering on magic. Seamus McGarvey's (The Avengers) lush and lively cinematography is outstanding, as is Sarah Greenwood's (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) eye-popping production design and Jacqueline Durran's (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) marvelous costumes. Dario Marianelli's (Jane Eyre) score is arguably the chief standout, his operatic arias achieving an invigorating life of their own that kept me continually enthralled.

THE MISSING ELEMENT
So why am I conflicted? As pretty as this movie is, as energetic and as lively as it is staged, the passion of the story is severely muted. By and large I hardly felt a thing with regard to Anna's relationship with Vronsky and how it affected her societal standing and her marriage to Karenin. The emotional essence of this triangle felt muted and dulled to me, never came alive like I kept hoping it would, and as full-bodied and vigorous as some of the performances were, I never got the feeling that either Wright or Stoppard were as concerned with Tolstoy's central narrative as they should have been.

Which is weird, because the subplot concerning Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the beautiful young sibling of Anna's sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), who is married to jovial adulterous Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), and her infatuation with Vronsky as well as her subsequent romance with down-to-earth and sensitive landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), borders on remarkable. It's overflowing with emotion that's honestly earned and deeply resonating, and whenever the film switches gears and focuses on them it bounces with an energy that much of the rest bizarrely lacks.

I'm not sure what the reasons for this disconnect are - why Wright and Stoppard excel on one part of the human element of this saga but bewilderingly fail where it comes to the other part of Tolstoy's tragic tale. They get right to the heart of the matter where it comes to Kitty and Levin, but only skim the surface as far as Anna and Vronsky are concerned, one love story ringing with truth while the other falls frustratingly flat.

This isn't for any lack of trying on the part of either Knightley or, especially, Law (he's wonderful, and the movie could use more of him). The former is unusually restrained, keeping herself in a state of control that's mightily impressive. She's got embers burning within her that flair up like wildfire at the most inopportune of moments, the scenes between her and Law dealing with their marriage having a fierce interpersonal ferocity the ones between her and Taylor-Johnson sadly lack. Yet the artifice integral to the world the filmmakers have created has the unfortunate side effect of muting the human element, and as gorgeous as all of this is, if the characters don't click none of the technical stuff matters.

VIKANDER A STANDOUT
Why Vikander and Gleeson are able to overcome this during their subplot I can't exactly say, but the truth of the matter is that they do. Both actors have a melodious chemistry, speaking volumes in silence and using subtle glances and gentle asides to get the finer points of their blossoming romance across to the viewer. Vikander, so wonderful in the Danish Oscar submission A Royal Affair, continues to impress, the breadth and body of her performance staggering, Gleeson matching her beat for beat and note for note, every step of the way.

Wright is a gifted director - of that there is still no doubt - and I'm not quite ready to dismiss Anna Karenina as an immaculately designed, highly ambitious disappointment. I want to - need to - see it again, as the portions of it I loved I did so deeply and without reservation. But the tragedy of Tolstoy's epic is lost in all this visual stage-bound majesty, Anna's journey a bizarrely empty one that sent me out of the theater feeling as if I'd been left out in the barren Russian cold.

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