Directors—especially theater directors, or those tackling classic material—live under the pressure of hatching the big idea, or as it's known in show biz, the "concept." But there's a peril that, in chasing a fresh concept, a director will come up with something foolhardy (like doing Macbeth on the starship Enterprise)... which brings us to Joe Wright's Anna Karenina.
The director of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice turns his attention to Tolstoy for this year's awards season, that time of year when size does matter. And no one has a bigger...concept this year than Wright, who—in collaboration with eminent playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard—has transformed Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina into something conspicuously theatrical.
Set amongst the aristocracy of Imperial Russia, circa 1874, the novel concerns parallel romantic strivings and the pitfalls that threaten the maintainance of the respectable and stable lifestyle to which the the upper crust have become accustomed. One storyline follows the titular socialite (Keira Knightley), whose dull marriage to government official Karenin (Jude Law) pales in comparison to a passionate affair with young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson); the plot thread given lesser attention finds fretful landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) pining after the reticent Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who is Anna's brother's sister-in-law.
With a dozen filmed versions already on the shelf, Wright obviously felt the heat to do something different. And so this Anna Karenina begins with an orchestra tuning up, then plays out entirely in a derelict theater symbolizing the Russian aristocracy's grasping attempts to maintain its delicate world, its illusions of social superiority and aesthetic perfection (it's a magical theater, of course, which gives way to a horse race and skating on a frozen lake).
It's also possible that Wright had in mind literary critic Viktor Shklovsky's Russian Formalist notion of "making strange," which in turn inspired dramatist Bertolt Brecht's theatrical "alienation effect," designed to stifle audience emotion and, as per Brecht, press the viewer "to be a consciously critical observer." There. Now who's for 130 minutes of alienation?
Wright employs boldly colorful costumes, twirling cameras, tableaux vivant, and whoosh-y, thump-y sound effects as if to say, "Take that, Baz Luhrmann!" This Anna is nothing if not show-offy, and on that level, it is something to behold, as it were (Karenin remarks of horse racing, "It's not the sport itself; it's the spectacle—making a cruel spectacle"). In particular, the ballroom sequence technically marvels. But I'd trade in an instant all this tiresome artificiality for some potent empathy. We're able to intellectualize why we should care (those social strictures are crushing hearts!), but we're too distracted to be moved.
Certainly, the production design blunts the actors, but Knightley's not much help giving what increasingly seems to be one of two performances in her repertoire (and still-callow Taylor-Johnson's a bit out of his depth). Suckers for fashion shows and cinematic dazzle, have at it, but others be warned: Anna Karenina may have you longing for the sweet release of a speeding train.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]