Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Film Review: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

So far, the oeuvre of Joe Wright has included the stunning, and surprisingly spry visual wit of Pride and Prejudice, the gorgeous dream-like feel of Atonement, the rather mediocre aching of The Soloist, the kinetic kitsch of Hannah, and now, the middling, yet ultimate failure of Anna Karenina.  I suppose this means the director is currently running at a 60% success rate overall, but such a stat still does not help make this mish-mashed version of Tolstoy's classic novel any more bearable than it is.  Which, incidentally, outside of a certain visual audacity, is not all that bearable at all.

Now, as any well read person can surely tell you, Tolstoy's novel is beyond reproach.  Though I tend to lean toward Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as my favourite, Anna Karenina may very well the single greatest novel ever written in the Russian language.  A classic of eternal depth through and through.  With such a stature, a film version is bound to come off as something less than desired.  Of course, since it is inherently difficult - one could even say impossible - to adapt any great work of literature into a proper film version, especially one as detailed and intricate as Karenina - anything shy of a sixteen hour Sergei Bonderchukian epic could never do it justice - one should not expect an adaptation of Tolstoy to include every minute detail the author put in there.  There have been twelve film versions of Anna Karenina, beginning as far back as 1914, and though I have only seen but three of these - four counting Mr. Wright's recent addition to the stables - it is a rather safe bet to say that none of these managed to recreate the novel in any sort of semblance of its entirety.  Even my personal favourite, the 1935 Clarence Brown version which stars Great Garbo in the title role, does not do complete justice to the book.  What it does do, is create an atmosphere where one can see and feel what Tolstoy saw and felt while writing his novel.   What we felt reading it.  This is all we can hope for in such a situation.  This is what we desire.  Much of the strength of the Garbo version has to do with the exotic enigma that was, and always will be, Garbo.  What Wright's version lacks is the feel of Tolstoy.  What else it lacks is the power of someone like Garbo to give its title character her much needed power.

I am not saying Keira Knightley is a bad actress.  She is not.  Given the right role (Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Cecilia Tallis in Atonement, even Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method) Ms. Knightley can truly shine.  Given the wrong role - one that needs a depth the actress has never been able to reach - she only flounders, and so too does the film.  I know that the actress is Wright's muse and all, but she just does not have the heft to pull off such a character.  One could easily see someone like Carey Mulligan or Michelle Williams or Natalie Portman pulling this off - Kate Winslet would own the role - but just not poor Keira.  If one has read the book, they will inevitably wonder upon seeing this film, why such a strong-willed character as Anna Karenina, is made to seem like a whiny and shallow bitch throughout.  I suppose a good portion of those seeing this film, have probably never read the original, so such a problem never rears its ugly head.  But still, the problem is there.  Jude Law does what one would call a bang-up job in his role, and Aaron Johnson is fine as the sadly underdeveloped Vronsky, but Knightley just doesn't swing it.  And none of this even starts to ask why Wright has decided to Baz Luhrmann his settings up by staging much of the action on a purposefully stagey erection, which would be perfectly fine - and the film does indeed have many moments of sheer visual beauty - if he did not then randomly break free from such erections with no real rhyme or reason.  Ah well, the director is still running at 60%, so I suppose we can only hope his next project puts him at 67% and not down to 50%.

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