[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Anna Karenina opens today in limited release.]
Joe Wright is a gifted director. His direction is daring, inventive, captivating, and unforgettable. But that doesn’t make him a great director. A great director finds a way to take the material he’s given and bring it to its maximum potential. Joe Wright doesn’t elevate his movies; he exceeds them. Pride and Prejudice and Hanna are marvelous, but Atonement and The Soloist are terrible. Granted, any director can only do so much with a script he’s given, but Wright seems content to leave his poor stories in the dust so that we can sit in awe at his bold direction like the long take of Dunkirk in Atonement or the musical colors in The Soloist. In his new film, Anna Karenina, Wright has once again blown past his story by using a melodrama to wrap his fascinating framing device rather than the other way around. Anna Karenina is a wonder to behold, but it leaves you wondering what you’re holding.
Based on the Leo Tolstoy tome of the same name, Anna Karenina takes place in 1874 Imperial Russia. The eponymous character (Keira Knightley) has grown distant from her rigid husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), and becomes enraptured by the swaggering, virile Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She begins an affair with Vronsky, which sends high society crashing down around her as her selfishness and immaturity blinds her to understanding love beyond the capacity for forgiveness. Meanwhile, as a basis for comparison, we see the story of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a friend of Anna’s philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen). Levin is a shy, earnest man who has traveled beyond the claustrophobic high society of Russia, but returns to seek the hand of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the younger sister of Oblonsky’s wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).
The grand plot is almost secondary to the film’s framing device: Anna Karenina is “set” inside an empty theater. Scenes unfold on the stage, in the auditorium, in the rafters, on the catwalk, and then it breaks the bonds of the theatre to bring us into the settings of train cars, bedrooms, etc. We’re transported in and out of the theatre seemingly at random. But watching these transitions is absolutely mesmerizing. Wright uses playful long takes (one of his trademarks) to create impossible spaces that break the bounds of reality. Are we on the stage or are we in the world? The characters never recognize they’re in a theater. It simply revolves around them as they perform for a absent audience.
So we’re left trying to wrap our heads around what Wright is trying to do with his framing device. Is this a dress rehearsal for a real performance? Is it meant to convey the theatricality of the Tolstoy’s story? Is this simply a play on “All the world’s a stage?” (that reading seems a little too easy, and also seems off-key to crib Shakespeare when working from Tolstoy). As best as I could see it, the stage seems to be a cage of Russian high society. Everything is beautifully orchestrated, costumed, and choreographed, but the players are prisoners. Only Levin, with his pure heart and willingness to leave the aristocracy behind, is able to exit the stage for wide open spaces.
Levin’s love story is the only element of the plot that doesn’t meet with Wright’s scorn. Without Levin’s story, the movie would be nothing more than a simple pretense for Wright to exercise his idea, an idea he could have done with plenty of other 19th century literary classics. Anna Karenina, as created by Wright, is a big, bold tale of forbidden love that rolls its eyes at being a big, bold tale of forbidden love. Anna’s “love” for Vronsky and her betrayal of Alexei has all the weight of a high school relationship. We’re never meant to buy a serious, mature love between Anna and Vronsky. There’s always a little silliness to any melodrama, but for Wright, it’s almost perfunctory. Despite the strength of the performances, we can never sympathize with Anna, Alexei, and Vronsky because the framing device constantly reminds us that they’re characters. They’re no longer being framed or illustrated by the stage; they’re devoured by it.
The star of Anna Karenina isn’t the cast or the story; it’s Joe Wright. The stage he’s created doesn’t enhance Tolstoy’s classic story, but dwarfs it. Even the aristocracy/proletariat comparison seems like a quaint touch (Anna is a member of the former, and Levin is a member of the latter) rather than something worthy of our full attention. The film is emotionally cold because it rarely wants to seriously consider the characters’ feelings. They’re simply talking props in Wright’s beautiful ballet. Anna Karenina is a glowing testament to Joe Wright’s skill as a director, but not as a storyteller.