Friday, November 23, 2012

"Anna Karenina": Joe Wright gives us a layered fantasy interpretation of Tolstoy's epic

Anna Karenina”, Leo Tolstoy’s expansive novel of the gradual moral breakdown in the upper classes near the end of Tsarist Russia, comes to the “go big” screen for the holiday season from another one of the world’s innovative directors, Britain’s Joe Wright (“Atonement”, reviewed here Dec. 8, 2007, and "Pride & Prejudice"). Wright, like many directors (such as Christopher Nolan, Tom Tykwer, Wes Anderson  and Paul Thomas Anderson) likes to play with layers of reality, and his treatment is characteristically playful and detailed.

Much of the time, the characters are watching themselves perform on an operetta stage, and the story moves into the stage, often elaborately designed but in patterns, with the effect that the film is almost like one incredibly crafted Broadway play (almost a musical or operetta).  3-D might have been appropriate; in any case, it’s important to see this film  in a modern theater with extended digital projection.  It appears to be shot in 70 mm but not Imax. 

Wright sometimes uses model steam trains (in an era before electricity, but very appropriate for the Christmas season) as a way to transition between “realities”.  The music, by Dario Marianelli, tends to emphasize a waltz rhythm that sounds like a mixture of late Tchaikovsky with Glazunov, and maybe a touch of Prokofiev.  The mood varies between operetta and ballet, with some occasional melodramatic orchestral climaxes over a particular ground bass theme (we know that technique from Hans Zimmer).  The waltz music is also played on solo piano in one scene. The last scene shows the stage overgrown with weeds, as if the characters had adapted to the real life (some of it in the countryside) closer to the world of the proletariat.

The main story concerns Anna’s  (Keira Knighley) affair with the handsome bachelor Count Vronksy (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), after her lack of satisfaction from her balding husband  Alexei Karenini (a mature Jude Law). There is a parallel story, loosely tied (and the connections really aren’t clear enough unless you know the story beforehand – the way you would for a literature course in college) of a landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).   The heart of the story concerns, of course, Anna’s  illegitimate child, and its social consequences.  There is a speech by Levin that human society needs to manage and tame sexuality so that it serves a common good (sounds like the Vatican and Rick Santorum to me).  Vronsky seems to want to conquer everyone. The camera tends to focus or even dawdle more on male beauty (of Vronsky and Levin) than female, as if to imply that homosexuality or bisexuality went on quietly and might have been accepted at some level, even (or especially) in the Russian military.

The official website is here

I saw this on Black Friday, late afternoon, at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA, in a large auditorium, and the show almost sold out. 

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