December 04, 2012

MOVIES: Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

Oh, where to begin with the problems of Anna Karenina?

We could start with the absurd melodrama of the plot, which asks us to accept that a man can fall in love with a single glance, and that he can win the woman with a bit of charming obsessive stalking.

Then there's the staging conceit, which is that we're watching the actors perform the story in an abandoned theater. There's no audience; in fact, the seats have been torn out, and that space is used by the actors as a playing area. We see stagehands wheeling furniture around; curtains and backdrops are raised and lowered; the musicians providing the score stroll through the scene.

This gimmick is eventually moved to the background, and we get scenes filmed at other sets and exteriors, but the first 15 minutes or so are very faithful to the theatrical notion, and it damages the movie badly. Watching actors make a mad dash across the backstage area just in time to enter through a door that wasn't there five seconds earlier lends an air of madcap farce that doesn't suit Tolstoy, and the movie never quite recovers from that misstep.

And finally, there's the casting. As Anna, Keira Knightley plays every scene as if it's the climax of the movie; her emotions are dialed up to 11 throughout, which is both inappropriate and exhausting to watch; by the time we reach the final scenes, which should be heartbreaking, they just play as more of Anna's histrionics. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky is a blond surfer dude, a not-so-bright undergrad dressing up in his great-grandfather's clothes. Jude Law's Karenin is a bland nonentity (and the decision to borrow James Lipton's facial hair for the role was ill-advised). There are two good performances in smaller roles: Matthew Macfadyen plays Oblonsky with a nicely understated sense of humor, and Olivia Williams is chilly and regal as Countess Vronsky.

There is an occasional lovely moment. The first dance between Anna and Vronsky is beautifully staged and filmed, with the other dancers choreographed in a way that emphasizes the passion and romance of the moment. A scene in which Karenin tears up a note from his wife and throws the shreds into the air, with their falling around him marking the beginning of a larger snowfall, is a creative use of the theatrical conceit. But those moments come too rarely, and they can't make up for the overwrought performances or the silly romantic cliches of the story. A spectacular disaster.

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