Pride & Prejudice, and it worked terrifically well. Now, it's Anna Karenina, and it works less. A whole lot less. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, you might say that it doesn't work at all.
Though to be fair to Wright, inasmuch as his Anna Karenina doesn't work, it's not by flopping dead onscreen like so many prestigious costume drama literary adaptations of yore. The film suffers, in fact, from that most appealing and rarest of flaws: too much ambition and thoughtfulness and creativity. And it announces all of this from the very beginning, for it initially takes the form of a stage play being presented in an empty theater, and then it starts to bleed the lines between "this is a play" and "this actually takes place in a theater-as-world environment", when the characters start to wander around backstage, as though that was actually part of their world just as much as the stage is, and very frequently the theatrical element is dropped altogether, as a character steps through a prop door and onto a snowy plain in northern Russia, for example.
The least we can say about this is that it's completely ballsy, and it's not the last of Wright's outrageous flourishes (and it is very much his idea, too: though the film was adapted by metatheater specialist Tom Stoppard, it appears that the theatrical angle was all Wright's), as he stages several sequences with the intricate choreography and even the rhythmic sound design of a musical number, adding yet another layer of theatricality to a film that is already quite pointedly arch and artificial.
The question is, and it's a nasty, miserly question to ask of such robust style: to what end? And this is where Anna Karenina slams into a cement block wall. Style, even empty, over-the-top style, is one thing; but what Wright is up to here is too conceptually aggressive to justify itself solely through style points. He's clearly up to something, and I bet I can even tell you what it is: by rendering the story as a theater piece, filmed in a manner that goes out of its way to emphasise the fiction of what we're watching in the most ornate, fussy way conceivable, the director is presumably trying to underscore the image- and role-obsessed society in which that story takes place, turning the titular Anna (played by Wright's most consistent muse, Keira Knightley) into a liberated fore of vitality in the midst of stiff, joyless prisoners of society.
Not least among the problems with this is that it's not really at all what Leo Tolstoy wrote, but that's no matter: filmmakers have been over-romanticising Anna Karenina since the silent era. For our current needs, the more damning fault is that it relies, entirely, on clearly distinguishing the "real woman" Anna from the formalised world of the theater/St. Petersburg, and this is something the movie entirely fails to do: in fact, Anna seems every bit as fake and artificial as anything or anyone around her.
There are many reasons for this to be the case: starting with an uncharacteristically flaccid screenplay by Stoppard, who proved unable to meet the challenge of reducing Tolstoy's great, winding novel to just a touch over two hours; something no-one has yet managed to do satisfactorily, but Stoppard makes things worse by spending much more time with the B-plot of progressive landowner Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) than most movies do, finding an anti-sweet spot of not enough time to really flesh out why he's there, but enough to needlessly limit the time we spend with Anna. The end result is a film that scurries from one plot point to another, but never pauses to allow the characters to breathe.. Then there is Knightley's performance, which is the best of a generally unexciting cast, none of whom are able to keep their heads above water in a film whose most basic ideas about staging and artifice make it deliberately impossible for anybody to create a strong character. But as I was saying, Knightley: she's never the most consistent of actors, but she's completely lost at sea here, in a movie where her director seems far more excited by the costumes she's wearing than what she's doing with herself in them. And it very much does not help matters that in the role of Anna's great lover Count Alexei Vronsky, we have Aaron Taylor-Johnson, one of the soggiest young actors to come along in the last few years, who firstly, does not seem like the kind of dashing figure that would drive anybody to the extremes to which Anna runs, and secondly, can't generate even one beat's worth of chemistry with Knightley.
So far, so bad: as a work of drama and characterisation, this Anna Karenina is exactly the flat, routine literary prestige picture that the lively, moving Pride & Prejudice so thoroughly failed to be. But on the other hand: ye gods, is it ever a bold, confident, brazen piece of filmmaking! It is the ultimate Joe Wright movie: all the tactility of P&P, the fluidity and creativity of Atonement, the momentum of Hanna, are filtered into one steady burst of visual elegance and captivating movement - this is one hell of a good-looking period picture, with both its nods to realism and its moments of greatest artifice equally well-expressed by the director's usual team of collaborators: costume designer Jacqueline Durran, production designer Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Sometimes the imagery is a little bit too self-aware of itself, a little too eager to show off (the exact same problem that wrecked Atonement for me) - the winking use of train imagery is particularly irritating - and the mere fact that the movie is gorgeous, and the mere fact that Wright's deliberately anti-naturalistic blocking results in some of the most graphically impressive frames I've seen all year, don't ever distract from how entirely little the movie ends up hanging together as anything other than a demo reel for how good the director is as a stylist. But, I mean, he's a real good stylist, all right.
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