January 2, 2013

All the World’s a Lifeless Stage

Print More

Films are so tough to make because they consist of so many complicated pieces, all operating at the same time. As the leading creative force during a film’s production, a director must work at making each scene interesting yet must also stay aware at how each scene deepens the overall meaning of the film. Both inputs are necessary: A pretty film without meaning is as frustrating as a meaningful film without style. Joe Wright’s new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has an interesting, complicated construction but not enough planning to give equal depth to its stylistic vision.

After receiving a letter detailing that her brother Prince Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) has been unfaithful to his wife, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) leaves her son and husband, aristocratic St. Petersburg government official Karenin (Jude Law), and travels to her brother in Moscow. On the train, she meets the womanizing and wealthy commander Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Passionately drawn to Anna, Vronsky charms her through dance and follows her to St. Petersburg. Initially resisting the attraction, Anna, a loving mother and a virtuous wife, eventually succumbs. Their affair shifts the fragile balance of their formal society, leading to insidious gossip, a broken marriage, an illegitimate child and a suicide.

Playwright and Oscar winner Tom Stoppard pens this adaptation. In interest of the novel’s dense 800-plus pages, Stoppard focuses the film around love. Anna deals with issues of marriage’s sanctity, the rules and customs for wedlock, fidelity and passionate love versus devoted love. Throughout the film, love appears in many different forms: There is Anna and Vronsky, the passionate affair; Anna and Karenin, the devoted marriage; Oblonsky and Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), the unfaithful couple. All this runs parallel to the love story of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a young suitor of Vronsky, and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner much like Tolstoy himself. Intended to symbolize a love that is pure and true, their relationship balances a landscape so wrought by adultery.

Director Joe Wright’s take centers around the idea that the Russian aristocracy lived on a stage. The movie opens with a visible proscenium and theater audience as the characters lead their lives in apparent ignorance of the stage. To maintain this artificial context for the movie, Wright (Hanna, Atonement) uses a single soundstage.  A door from a ballroom opens into Anna’s bedroom, which opens into an outdoor ice rink, which opens into a restaurant. Some scenes use this fluidity to carry on longer and through greater spans of time like an actual play.  All around, the cinematography and costume design styles after a dark Nutcracker: white, light pink and sky blue on mustards, browns and navies. The rooms, the costumes and the furniture are illuminated in such a way that makes everything fuzzier and starrier. Wright sets up a uniquely designed costume drama on an intellectually interesting stage.

However, despite a complicated plot and an innovative directive vision, the problem with this movie is that the main idea — putting society on a stage — isn’t complete. The thesis is never answered: By the middle of the movie, the shifting settings stop. It’s unfortunate because Wright clearly tries to do something outside of dialogue with transitions and juxtaposed scenery. But since the idea is not fully integrated into the scenes and the actual plot, it makes you wonder why Wright put all this work into this hollow vision in the first place

The result is a film that doesn’t come together in a clear way. Anna’s fall never receives the full effect the film is working towards, and the cold glares of aristocratic society are not nearly as intimidating as their dire consequences supposedly suggest. Dialogue, while rich and nuanced, requires four or five replays to be actually understood, which is something a movie, unlike a book, cannot do.

Perhaps Tolstoy is meant to confound his readers. He’s not the same as Jane Austen, whom Wright adapted in 2004’s Pride and Prejudice, and, if this film is any indication, he’s not as easy to adapt. What an adaptation suggests is that the original artist has already completed a piece of art and proven him or herself as a master of a medium. It’s not guaranteed that a complicated web of dialogue, scenes and themes can just be picked up from the book and replicated in film to the same effect. Even if one thing changes, as done here, it can forfeit what succeeded in the novel. This problem makes every tiny detail overwhelming and complex.

Despite all my criticism, Anna Karenina is not a terrible movie. When a director shoots for ambition, for one, it is much easier to fail, and two, its flaws are open to greater scrutiny because the audience is much more invested. Wright went for something that I imagine many people would want to explore, but he just couldn’t execute his vision, unlike Tolstoy almost 150 years ago.


Original Author: Meredith Joyce