Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
As conceived by director Joe Wright and veteran playwright-turned-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, much of the latest Anna Karenina takes place in an old theater. Intended as a metaphor for the watchful gaze of 19th-century Russian society, it’s one that quickly proves apt. In Moscow to visit with her brother Stepan Oblansky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), the lovely Anna (Keira Knightley) catches the eye of young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Determined to have her, Vronsky pursues Anna, who, despite an avowed loyalty to her husband Alexei Karenin (a dignified Jude Law) and their son, eventually caves.
If their affair is discovered, ostracism surely awaits, and in that regard the theater setting feels fresh and relevant. Serving as the venue for galas, opera, and a horse race, the focus consciously forces the audience into the role of voyeur, scrutinizing these daring individuals lest they let down their guard. From the onset, it appears that Wright means to work exclusively within the theatrical parameters, having prop masters wheel items around the central characters, who carry on oblivious to the technicians around them. These leads traverse the theater with impressive ease, trekking through backstage doors to rooms and open areas that double as apartments and streets out in the city.
Outside of these early moments and obvious gatherings, however, the stage appears almost at random, even while society’s hold on Anna’s and Vronsky’s dwindling reputations tightens. Escaping the crowd’s watch in their homes or out in the countryside [in which Oblansky’s friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) likewise finds peace, working in the fields alongside peasants], the concept fades, only to reappear with waning effectiveness. The inconsistency with which this intriguing idea is employed fast becomes a distraction, and regardless of its initial wonder, perhaps it would have been better had the theater not been used at all.
Further marring this Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s inescapably depressing story, rolled out here at the pace of a funeral march. Slogging through Anna’s repetitious, myriad turmoils with few distractions, the film devolves into an unexpected endurance test. Crucial to this trudge is the lack of background Stoppard’s script provides of Anna’s and Karenin’s marriage. With minimal sign of displeasure toward her husband or life in general, Anna is surprisingly quick to accept Vronsky’s advances, displaying little concern for the consequences of such behavior. In the absence of unrest, her unexplained actions come off as childish, and since their melodramatic relationship dominates the film, more development is required for it to play out with any substance.
Battling against these inconsistencies, the film manages to remain afloat thanks to each performer giving his or her all. There’s not a bad turn in the bunch as this thoroughly British cast embraces their era-appropriate mustaches and minks. And for all the visual risks that don’t quite pay off, Wright nonetheless delivers his usual goods. Re-teaming with Seamus McGarvey, his DP from Atonement, the film is gorgeous throughout and occasionally inspires a much-needed energy through unexpected eccentricities.
A few precious times, Anna Karenina appears intent on jazzing up the old dusty story. Sights such as Oblansky’s staff of synchronized form-stampers or Vronsky on a giant prop horse are reminiscent of Moulin Rouge!‘s electric vibe, yet Wright and Stoppard are unwilling to push these oversize elements. Instead of building on these wondrous absurdities that transcend the gloom, they just as quickly reel the imagination back in, maintaining the film’s sadly reserved tone. Without such pep, Anna Karenina is only so exciting, and that’s not nearly enough to get through this cold Russian winter of a film.
Rated R for some sexuality and violence.
Anna Karenina is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave. and the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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