Joe Wright has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker. From the five-minute tracking shot of a ravaged Dunkirk in Atonement (which, by Wright’s own admission, is there to “show off”) to the fairy tale iconography of Hanna, Wright has made a veritable directorial trademark out of nonstop (and sometimes even unmotivated) stylization. So naturally, when tasked to make a costume drama, Wright responds by retelling Anna Karenina as an operatic visual spectacle that confines all of this 19th century Russian drama to a literal theater. Simple enough, right?
While some of Wright’s previous efforts have used that visually bombastic quality to great effect, such as the aforementioned Hanna, Karenina’s dizzying surrealistic qualities, while gorgeous to look at, ultimately distract from the story when they should be enhancing it. In other words, imagine Baz Luhrmann’s visual pomp, but by way of Baz Luhrmann’s lack of thematic nuance.
Anna Karenina isn’t a story that necessarily demands nuance either – Tolstoy’s mammoth 1877 tome explores grand, irrational emotions within the confines of a deeply destructive love triangle. In the case of this latest adaptation though, part of the problem is that it doesn’t attempt to compliment its own lack of nuance with the passion needed for such high drama. Keira Knightley lends an especially manic twist to Karenina herself, and Jude Law is absolutely heartbreaking as her cuckolded husband, Karenin, even if Aaron Johnson is unusually stiff as Vronsky, Karenin’s rival for Anna’s affection. Even with a strong supporting cast behind them though, these performers are unable to lend the material enough energy to invest us in this tragic romance.
Admirably attempting to compensate for that energy is Wright’s direction, and there are enough moments of genuinely interesting cinematic invention here that the film shouldn’t be written off entirely. Granted, the central metaphor is fairly obvious after a few moments – the Russian political sphere that traps Anna in a life where she can’t be happy forces all of its players to be constantly performing, lest they reveal their true selves in the theater of their lives. But as sets and locations pivot around within this literal theater of Wright’s imagining (frequently in a single shot), the conceit still manages to make for a number of viscerally exhilarating moments that recall the best moments of his previous work: a horse race across a stage, a shared dance that stops time, a torn up letter that turns to snowflakes. What may be the film’s most stunning moment occurs midway through, when one of the few characters with his decency still intact departs for the country, and the back of the stage opens up to reveal the first actual outdoor location of the entire film.
Yet these sequences are best as just that – sequences that wow as individual segments, but fail to work as a cohesive central gimmick. Since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Karenina’s bold stylistic approach has inspired comparisons to properties as diverse as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. However you may feel about those two vastly underrated yet wholly divisive films, each committed to its eccentric aesthetic to convey something about the emotional reality of the film. In Karenina, the effect only further removed you from any sense of emotional reality, by constantly numbing you with flourish after flourish. As such, the result feels like an extended formal exercise, albeit an impressive one. It’s a film that does an immaculate job of designing a whirlwind, yet forgets to ever sweep you up in it.
Perhaps such emotional distancing is the point, and perhaps Wright is drawing so much attention to the artifice of Anna’s life so as to make a greater statement about what a hollow world these characters inhabit. Yet if it is so empty, why do we keep coming back to Anna Karenina, and why have twelve directors before Wright brought it to the screen? For their doomed dalliance to have any greater resonance, when Anna and Vronsky dance for the first time, it’s imperative is that your attention be drawn towards to the two of them in front of the camera, not the people behind it.