Theatrical setting, cardboard star, drain life out of luscious ‘Anna Karenina’
All the world may be a stage, but filmmaker Joe Wright takes this notion a bit too literally in his luscious, epic misfire of a movie, Anna Karenina.
Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel about an illicit love affair and its consequences in glittering Imperial Russian society has been filmed innumerable times, but Wright and scriptwriter Tom Stoppard have a truly audacious and imaginative idea for putting the old warhorse through its paces one more time: staging almost the entire drama within the confines of an enormous theater set.
It’s not simply that actors enter and exit an onstage set via the wings; the action spills out into the seats and orchestra pit, as well as backstage. Characters prowl the catwalks, gazing down at the action below; players tryst or gossip in the wings, between the flats; random musicians wander through the action, sawing or tootling away; office bureaucrats doing paperwork are choreographed like a drill team. In one scene, set at a race track, live horses actually thunder across the stage.
The reasoning behind this seems clever enough. It recalls medieval Morality Plays, where traveling troupes would enact edifying moral stories from their wagon stages. For another, it highlights the idea that St. Petersburg high society is itself a kind of grand, public stage, its players on display before an audience of unforgiving viewers ready to pounce on anyone who doesn’t act his or her assigned role to perfection. And there are luminous moments when Wright’s evocative staging and lighting effects pay off, as when transgressing wife Anna, who dares to go to the opera in public after abandoning her family, is spotlighted in all her social isolation.
But this scene works because it’s actually set in a theater, so Wright’s larger theatrical setting doesn’t feel as contrived. For the most part, however, the constant artifice of everything—movement, stage settings, the weird, fussy little hand gestures they all use in the waltz—only serves to leech the essential emotion out of the story. It’s all about the presentation of the material, not the material itself, so the drama feels as counterfeit, unreal, as everything else. The figures trapped in Wright’s grand design are like cardboard cut-outs in a Victorian toy theatre; they might as well be run in and out of the action on sticks.
This is certainly true of Keira Knightley in the title role. She was terrific in Wright’s Pride and Prejudice reboot, and effective enough in his Atonement, but the gravitas of Anna and her dilemma elude her. Anna is a woman of immense social standing married to successful government bureaucrat, Karenin (Jude Law), who chooses to risk—and lose—everything for a carnal affair with the proverbial dashing young cavalry officer, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But Knightley feels too young, shallow, and modern in the role; her entire arsenal of pouts and nervous grins never suggest the depth of feeling Anna must experience. In one horrible scene where she’s alternately raging at and pleading with Vronsky, Knightley comes across like a teenager coping with PMS.
Taylor-Johnson (also known as Aaron Johnson, back when he played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) plays the insistent Vronsky with suitable ardor. But it doesn’t help matters that he’s saddled with a wild, bleached-blond hairdo and uncertain moustache that make him look like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. Meanwhile, Law didn’t get the memo that it’s all a big art-for-art’s-sake stunt; while Knightley is swanning around, displaying angst, Law is caught infusing his wronged husband, Karenin, with genuine emotional complexity and hidden pain beneath his composed surface.
Anna Karenina is not without its pleasures. Wright drops the theatrical artifice whenever the action moves out of the city and into the country, giving us all a chance to breathe. The costumes are breathtaking, and the stagecraft often entertaining. (When rockets are launched onstage, we and the characters onscreen all crane our faces upwards in time to see the painted theater ceiling slide open, revealing fireworks exploding against the night sky.)
Matthew MacFadyen is fun as Anna’s genial route of a brother, and Domhnall Gleeson scores as youngcountry squire Levin, whose stoic fidelity to love is finally rewarded. If only the central story were riveting enough to hold together all of its diverse, distracting parts.
★★1/2 (out of four)
With Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, and Matthew MacFadyen.
Written by Tom Stoppard. From the novel by Leo Tolstoy.
Directed by Joe Wright. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 130 minutes.