Anna Karenina

I don’t know. Maybe we’re just in a good mood. Anna Karenina is one of the movies we avoided seeing when it came out. The trailer looked reasonably interesting, but the Joe Wright/Keira Knightly collaboration record is…spotty.

Their 2005 collaboration on Pride and Prejudice is my favorite filmed version of the book, a heretical statement among lovers of Austen. But P&P is a fast-paced book, light without being frivolous, socially aware (for the early 1800s) without being preachy, and romantic without being sappy. Wright’s interpretation (with script help from Emma Thompson) clears out the stuffiness you usually get.

On the other hand, Atonement was squirm-in-your-chair bad, as chronicled in this early review.

The reviews on Anna Karenina were tepid, which tells little, though audiences and critics were similarly “meh”. The only moviegoer I ran into who had actually seen it actively disliked the central conceit of the film, which pretty much guarantees an unpleasant experience.

This is the story of a young, earnest mother (Knightly), married to an older, important Russian official (played winningly by Jude law), who becomes obsessed with a handsome cavalry officer (Mr. Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and fairly quickly goes to Hell, figuratively at first, but ultimately (presumably) literally.

The central conceit of the film is to have much of it take place on a (literal) stage, and in the auditorium for the stage. I wondered at first if, perhaps, this was a budgetary consideration: Replacing several costly sets with a decorated stage, e.g., might save some money. But the way it’s shot and presented, I can’t imagine they saved very much, if anything.

(Actually, a quick Google search reveals that, no, it was the exact opposite of a budgetary consideration, it was an expensive flash of inspiration.)

I think, ultimately, it was a metaphor made literal: This is the story of how we act on our desires stands up to public scrutiny.

The upside of the approach is it allows for Wright to stage absolutely gorgeous and sometimes audacious shots. The Flower identified the movie from the trailer as “the movie with the indoor ice skating rink.” Then there’s a horse race on stage. That’d be the “audacious”, though it does stress the limits of CGI past the breaking point (as The Boy observed).

The downside of the approach is it yanks you out of the story, repeatedly, throughout. The metaphor seems even more stressed than the CGI, and you’re initially drawn out wondering if some aspects of the film aren’t meant to be real, but later on left puzzled as to why only some scenes take place on the stage while others do not.

Even now, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a pattern to the elements that took place on the stage (representing public life) versus those that took place under the stage (representing humdrum activities, that are public yet ignored, maybe?). I’m sort of left thinking it was based on what looked cool.

Not that that’s necessarily bad. The Flower adapted pretty quickly and The Boy didn’t seem too bothered. Might be harder for old guys like me to accept.

The acting is pretty much what you’d expect: Really good, unless you have a problem with the actors going in. Like, if you think Knightly’s too skinny to be hot—or Taylor-Johnson is too skinny for that matter to be the dashing cavalryman. The supporting cast is excellent, too: The cream of the under-60 English acting crop, like Matthew MacFayden, Kelly MacDonald (Brave, No Country For Old Men) and Olivia Williams, for example.

Dario Marianelli’s score delivers. Masterful blocking and staging. Definitely a work of art.

But will you enjoy it? Both The Boy and The Flower did, and seemed to more than I did. I wouldn’t give it a “meh”, exactly, but I can see why others might.

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