Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Movie Review: Anna Karenina

I've been waiting patiently for a couple of weeks now to see the new Anna Karenina adaptation.  The early signs were good:  Keira Knightly as Anna, a merchandise tie-in with Banana Republic, and a storyline created by, oh, only one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.  All signs were go.

So yesterday, with a bribed husband in tow and a whiskey flask in my purse (source of his bribe), I plunked down my $20 and sat down in a dark, smelly theater to see what Joe Wright had managed to put together.

I now wish I had spent that $20 on more whiskey.

This movie was sort of like the Russian version of Sofia Coppola's failed Marie Antoinette movie from a few years ago.  Pretty, but without a soul and largely miscast.

Here's the basic plot (no spoilers here):  A married woman, Anna Karenina, begins a flirtation with an attractive young cavalry officer named Vronsky.  The two engage in an affair, and complications ensue with Anna's niece Kitty (who wanted Vronsky for herself), Anna's husband Karenin, Anna's young son Seriozha, and society in general, who frowns on Anna's behavior.

Now, this pains me to say, because I love Keira Knightley and no one's smoky-eye makeup ever looks better on the red carpet.  However, something was off about her in this role from minute one.  Something was off about the entire movie, too.  Let me see if I can explain this a bit better.

Weird Thing about this Movie #1: The Staging
The movie has a strange staging effect.  It takes place on a strange rotating stage, as if the director wanted us to have the feel of a stage play.  Curtains rise and fall, painted set pieces drop into the background, and people walk out one door only to walk in another door right beside the first, in order to indicate a change of scene, place, and time.  It feels contrived rather than interesting.  It does not add to the intimacy of the story, nor does it advance any of the characters.  It's basically a wasted gesture that just ends up being confusing.  Plus, not all of the movie is done this way.  The scenes with Levin, a character who lives in the country, are actually shot in the country, not on the revolving stage.  So what's the point?  Why do this for part of the movie, if you're not going to do it for the whole thing?

Weird Thing about this Movie #2: The Dramatic Pauses
If you can get past that, there are a few more artsy-for-the-sake-of-being-artsy touches that also have that contrived feel.  Characters pause like statues at particular points so we can see Anna and/or Vronsky moving around in the scene.  Like the ornate theater-style sets, though, it's unnecessary.  This plot and these characters happened in a society thick with togetherness.  Separation like this only destroys the intimate, everyone-knows-everyone-else's-business effect that the plot needs for the ending to be believable.  Wright captures this feel once, when he flashes onto the faces of disapproving Russian society matrons as they grimace and smirk at the misbehaving Anna.  I kept thinking, "I know there's a movie that did all this better.  Oh, that's right--Dangerous Liaisons."  Pretty much everything Anna Karenina wants to be was already done...and done better...in Dangerous Liaisons.

Weird Thing about this Movie #3: No Development/Reason for Love Story
The whole point of this story is to create sympathy for Anna, a woman who does something wrong.  She has an affair, but we're meant to sympathize with her impetuousness, her willingness to risk everything for love, her ability to go after what she wants and flout society's stuffiness to do it.  None of that actually happens here because the director didn't take the time to make the love story believable.

Anna and Vronsky basically fall in love during one strange ballroom dance scene.  They've exchanged a few words and glances prior to this, but it's not anything beyond a mild flirtation.  But somehow, once dance, and we're supposed to believe mad passion has been inspired.  The actors can't quite pull this scene off (director's fault?  not really sure here), and the screenwriter really needed to have another scene or two where we see Anna struggling with this.  As it is, she seems to smile at Vronsky, dance with him, breathe heavily for a minute, and declare herself in love.  There's very little struggle, and very little reason why Anna would fall for Vronsky.  His hairdo is horrific, and he's kind of stuck on himself.

The problem here is that if we don't believe these two are madly in love, we won't believe what comes afterward--Anna's mad struggle to free herself from her husband and set up shop with Vronsky, despite Petersburg's social ostracism.  It seems weird that she would do this for this man.  In the book, all of this is given time to simmer and develop (the benefits of a nearly thousand-page book, I guess).  But in the movie, we have to buy life-altering mind-numbing passion in one scene.  It's not enough, at least not the way it's written, staged, and directed here.

Weird Thing about this Movie #4: Keira Knightley Seems Off as Anna
I thought this would be a slam dunk.  I mean, Keira Knightley is born to play tormented historical heroines, right?  Of course.  So why is this different?  I think it has to do with this being a Russian book.  There is something deep and dark and churning in the Russian soul that I think this movie missed entirely.  Keira Knightley played Anna as happy and playful before her affair with Vronsky.  I could have been okay with this, if that playfulness were shown as part of some deep emotional tide running within her.  Instead, it seemed like she was an overgrown child, having more fun at the kids' table than with adults.

Once she hooked up with Vronsky, she became a total stage-5 clinger, to make a nifty Wedding Crashers reference.  She was shrill and shrewish, instead of fatalistic and soul-consumed.  I now want to see Vivien Leigh in the role, because I'm thinking she might have been better at the whole soul-consumed thing (what with her depression and bipolar issues and all).

Basically, this Anna seemed like a silly girl instead of woman who let her sense of fatalism control her destiny.  It made the character silly and the movie silly.  I'm trying to think of who else might have been able to play this role

Weird Thing about this Movie #5: Vronsky's Hair
Oh my God, Vronsky's hair.  I don't care if Russian dudes in the 1880s actually looked like this.  Now, it just looks silly, like the Masterpiece Theater version of Gene Wilder's hair.  Give the guy some regular hair, please.

Overall, I feel like this was a wasted opportunity.  It was pretty, for the most part, but wrong.  Just wrong.