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Friday, November 16, 2012
Dancing With A Devil Called Love In 1870s Russia
Keira Knightley as the title character in Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina".
Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Friday, November 16,
Rich, invigorating and sensual, Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" never stops being
bold or ambitious thanks to the theatrical approach taken by the director to Leo
Tolstoy's legendary epic work. Set in Tolstoy's Russia of the 1870s though
stripped of a lot of the politics and agricultural minutiae that fills the
novel, "Anna Karenina" dives deep into the comedy and tragedy of emotions
governed by the boundless, impossible, inconvenient love that grips Anna (Keira
Knightley) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), each of whom have eyes for the wealthy
Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna, of the aristocracy, is married
to the political figure Karenin (Jude Law). Their existence together is at
best cautious. Kitty is vigorously pursued by Lenin (Domhnall Gleeson).
Each of these loveseekers have a strong desire to break with staid convention,
and by extension Mr. Wright, a director who typically uses flourish and style
with zeal, takes what for cinematic purposes might be a constrained platform of
theater on film and breathes life and freedom into this oft-filmed story.
At heart a theatrical type of movie director, Mr. Wright exhibits a keen sense
of choreography throughout virtually all his films. Whether in shots of
Ms. Knightley and James McAvoy swirling in the heat of love in
or that film's minutes-long tracking shot of battle and rancor; or the dance of
color and light plus the end credits dance in
or Eric Bana's fight scene amplified by The Chemical Brothers' music in
or a dizzying dance of tension in his new film; Mr. Wright is adept at shaking
things up and imagining them in refreshing ways. This confidence of vision
works almost always for the better not only for the medium Mr. Wright works in
but strictly in the story he tells.
Anna, a mother in very good social standing in Russia, tries to rule and
regulate her feelings for Vronsky, and Ms. Knightley, a theatrical film
performer, sinks into the role and does well, her eyes burning with passion.
She tries to betray her heart but cannot get free of Vronsky, a man who bleeds
love for her. Mr. Wright's creativity and vision is well-suited to Ms.
Knightley's approach to Anna. Where she seemed too theatrical (and wildly
overacted) in a period film like last year's
Method", a film governed by psychological themes and issues rather
than physical movement, she makes Anna a being who feels, touches, and moves
furtively and dynamically without artifice or the stilted awkwardness
displayed in David Cronenberg's film. Ms. Knightley looks more comfortable
as an actor enveloped in Mr. Wright's playful screen atmosphere. At times
electric and unbounded, Ms. Knightley's work here isn't incongruous to Mr.
Wright's sense of adventure and creativity, or vice versa, and there's no
surprise that the two are an effective pair who work well with and for each
other ("Sense & Sensibility", "Atonement".)
As Karenin, a measured Mr. Law is besotted with tragedy and conflict, and his
role as cuckold and empathizer is tricky. He is sympathetic but colorless,
appropriately (for story purposes) at odds with the grand, exuberant theater of
Mr. Wright's stage. Karenin is knowing but naive, an adult on the
outskirts of a child's playground of reckless love, wantonness and indulgence.
One scene involving Karenin and two other prominent characters represents a
crossing of two speeds: one alive, the other outmoded and almost dead,
reconciling somewhere in the middle. The scene in question represents a
crossroads moment -- the idea that electricity and reality will eventually
collide, with only one of those variables staying alive.
Vronsky is rich in heart, a younger man whose flash and debonair charms are
deeper than represented by Mr. Taylor-Johnson ("Kick-Ass"),
whom while evoking these characteristics well, doesn't penetrate Tom Stoppard's
lively screenplay more deeply than the symbolic figure he is onscreen.
Vronksy is shown more as an idea, a tablet or surface representation of the
object of desire, yet Mr. Wright shrewdly avoids objectifying Vronsky and Anna
when they are in the throes of love by using close-ups, making the pair when in
union intellectual and intensely sensual creatures rather than purely physical
and feral ones.
"Anna Karenina" could have been a bore but it is always magically alive.
Mr. Wright gives an onomatopoeic rhythm to brewing tensions in several key
scenes. The tender undercard story of the film is Lenin's abiding quest to
win over Kitty, the quiet and demure woman he has always wanted and loved but
who has spurned him. Mr. Elliott is particularly good playing Lenin, an
innocent introduced to the fruits (and fruitlessness) of the pursuit of love,
and is a medium-temperature character who lies somewhere between the cool,
rational dispatch of Karenin and the heated, spontaneous Vronsky.
Both stories are occasionally interrupted for the comic relief and brilliance of
Matthew MacFadyen as Oblonsky, Anna's brother, forever a matchmaker and a
philanderer. Mr. MacFadyen gleefully mocks all of this seriousness and
indiscretion with his irreverence, cynicism and dispassion, and he could easily
be a 21st century audience member. Indeed, "Anna Karenina" is timeless and
its themes everlasting, relevant to today, tomorrow and forever. (Can you
imagine U.S. General David Petraeus' current personal issues being put on screen
quite like this? Imagine the theater. And the costume
Stylized with energy, sumptuous color, elegant costumes and superb Oscar-worthy
production design by Sarah Greenwood, "Anna Karenina" uses each of these not as
props or the kind of background noise that drowns some period-era films.
These filmmaking elements make a strong statement, symbolically and
substantively and make Mr. Wright's film the spectacle of entertainment and
energy that it deserves to be. Backed with an solid ensemble cast of fine
actors, "Anna Karenina" shows us a director who improves with each successive
Also with: Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson, Emily Watson.
"Anna Karenina" is rated R by the Motion
Picture Association Of America for some sexuality and violence. The film's running time is two hours and
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