Tuesday, 11 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: Anna Karenina (2012)

This pointless adaptation of Tolstoy's masterpiece is a missed opportunity

Here's something to think about when watching Joe Wright's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (hereafter Anna Karenina '12); how can any film truly do justice to 400,000 words, or nearly 900 pages, in a couple of hours? With that in mind, the best course of action for any filmmaker should be to at least capture the essence of the book. But Anna Karenina '12 fails at even that. Wright's playful, stagey, pseudo-symbolic direction seems totally at odds with the lush, epic and tragic nature of Tolstoy’s classic story, something that Bernard Rose's 1997 adaptation, flawed though it was, managed to convey. When one has doubts about the directorial approach only a quarter of the way through, you know the film's in trouble.

It's 1874 Imperialist Russia, and the title character (Wright's "muse", Keira Knightley, too young for the role) is on her way to Moscow to help her brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen, expectedly reliable) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald, unexpectedly awful) "patch things up" after Oblonsky’s recent affair. Little does Anna know that after meeting Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, game but underwhelming) she will soon embark on an affair of her own, damaging her marriage to government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law, the best performer in the film by a long shot) and causing friction all around her. Such friction is cleverly hinted at early on in one of the film's few truly successful scenes, which features Anna and Vronsky dancing around a ballroom while a literally statuesque crowd slowly but surely comes to life... and then vanishes, leaving the tension between the pair to build to almost unbearable levels before Anna realises what she has done. It's an inventive visual that speaks volumes about the life-changing nature of the moment while tipping us off to the tragedy that follows. What’s unfortunate is that it's a rarity among a series of mostly gimmicky visuals – a toy train "transforming" into a model one, characters stomping in line with the film's score, conveying messages of love through building blocks, and so on – that do little or nothing to serve the story. Rather, they jolt you out of it, giving the impression that Anna Karenina '12 is about a director's obsession with his "toys" rather than a compelling narrative. Throw in some clunky dialogue ("I'll never forgive myself for your unhappiness." "No... this is my happiness.") and – Karenin aside – generally cardboard characters, and you've got something that largely resembles a glorified puppet show. It's all rather silly.

Sorry Keira, but it doesn't quite fit...
So silly, in fact, that by the time it comes for Anna to meet her fate, how can one care? The Anna of Anna Karenina '12 is a cipher, a plot device, a nobody, and while that may be kind of ironic at story's end, especially considering her place in society by then, it does no service to the story whatsoever. No one should ever mistake Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for being filmable as part stage play, part fantasy; in other words, Merchant Ivory meets Spielberg, an unhealthy recipe if there ever was one. And while I admire Wright's attempt at an intimate adaptation, a novel of this magnitude must be presented as both grand and intimate. Anna Karenina '12 is neither. It's a great example of how something so potentially enriching can feel so flat, empty and soulless in the wrong hands. It's a missed opportunity, and while it won't quite leave Tolstoy turning in his grave, it will have no one doing cartwheels, either.