** (out of 5)
November 15, 2012
Kiera Knightley as ANNA KARENINA
Matthew Macfadyen as OBLONSKY
Jude Law as KARENIN
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as COUNT VRONSKY
Kelly Macdonald as DOLLY
Directed by: Joe Wright
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Before I start waxing poetic and philosophical about “Anna Karenina,” let me state for the record that I don’t know jack shit about classic Russian literature. I have never read the original Leo Tolstoy novel, and the sum total of my knowledge of it (aside from what I can glean from this film itself) comes from a twenty-minute Wikipedia search.
I feel this disclosure is necessary because I have been called to task for having little or no knowledge of source material, from silly video game movies like “Silent Hill: Revelation” to more respected but less known films like “In the Electric Mist.”
Face it, folks. I just don’t have the time to read the book (or play the video game or cover the graphic novels or see the stage play, etc.) of every movie I see. So you can dismiss my opinion of Joe Wright’s version of “Anna Karenina” for being too low-brow and simple. I can live with that.
With that said… “Anna Karenina” sure looks pretty. Like all of Joe Wright’s films, the production design is beautiful, and the costumes are exquisite. He really steps up his game that was set forth in films like “Pride & Prejudice.” As a costume drama, it’s quite attractive, as is the cast.
And speaking of that cast, they sure do act their hearts out throughout the film. Led by Kiera Knightley in the title role, the film is supported by strong performances by Jude Law and Matthew Macfadyen. So from a strictly acting and image perspective, “Anna Karenina” is a sight to behold.
However, like a modern music video, it’s more about the look and image than it is about the substance behind all of that. Wright gets swept up in his own visual romance and often forgets to tell a cohesive story.
In fact, he gets so into the look of the film that plot seems secondary in many scenes. Rather than using a straightforward visual style that he used for his previous films, Wright seems to be channeling Baz Luhrmann. The stage is set, quite literally, as the opening twenty minutes of the film features a theatrical backdrop. It feels like a stage play with distinct choreography with the characters’ actions as they move from set to set in the same house, even if these scenes are meant to be happened across the whole of Europe.
It is this presentation that gives “Anna Karenina” some depth and interest. However, unlike Luhrmann who demanded the viewer’s attention throughout the entire running time of films like “Moulin Rouge!,” Wright burns out with this style in just a couple reels. The theatrical set-piece is abandoned within a half hour into the film, and we’re back to a dull kitchen sink drama with pretty gowns.
There are some points in the second and third acts where Wright revisits his theatrical look, but this is implemented only here and there, feeling more like an afterthought than an actual directorial vision. It reminds me of Wright’s film “Atonement,” which for the most part was an intimate character study but suddenly explodes into a gimmick money shot the was impressive but completely out of pace with the rest of the film.
There’s no question that Wright has a passion for this story, and he put all of his energies into the movie. And his original muse (Kiera Knightley this time around instead of Saoirse Ronan) returns to his screen and gives it her all.
There’s just something lacking in the film that can’t be replaced with gorgeous costumes and stunning visuals.
And then there are the accents. Call me a stickler, but I’ve always been annoyed at films that are set in foreign countries that don’t even feature proper accents. Films like “Valkyrie” and “Enemy at the Gates” are fantastic examples of films that slather on the American or British accents even though the films take place in Germany or Russia.
I can excuse this for community theater actors who can’t quite nail an accent. However, if you’re being paid thousands – if not millions – to star in motion pictures, you can afford a proper dialogue coach. After all, Kelly Macdonald managed to deliver her lines in a British accent instead of her natural Scottish one. Why can’t everyone else go the extra mile and give us a little more of a Russian flavor to the film?
I know this is par for the course for a British-produced costume drama, but it is indicative of the film’s narcissism ironically manifested in an obsession about image.