Saturday, November 24, 2012
Passion Play: Anna Karenina
To think of Joe Wright's filmography is to think of his showy extended takes and elaborate camera movements, which is precisely how he wants it. Wright's four-minute tracking shot in Atonement — the most famous example of his bravura exhibitions — is the work of an artist who wants to challenge himself and call attention to himself at the same time. Alas, it's the wrong kind of showstopper — one that takes us out of the movie instead of into the evacuation of Dunkirk and that inspires eye rolls as much as respect. Memory of that sequence is enough to make one hesitant to fall for similar flourishes in Wright's latest film, Anna Karenina, but this time around Wright's camera acrobatics are much more effective, in large part because they blend in. Rather than reduce the energy of his cinematic trapeze acts, Wright has instead chosen to increase the frenzy of the entire circus. Clearly determined to separate his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's saga from the many that have preceded it, Wright locates the majority of the film inside an opera house, where scene-transitioning set changes often take place as the actors continue to perform on a literal stage. The result is a film that can be as frenzied as an encore performance by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra — although it's still less aggressive than Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! And even if this showy approach is inspired by Wright's interest in flamboyant filmmaking more than a desire to dig into Tolstoy's themes, there's no denying that he accomplishes the latter via the former.
Wright announces the kind of movie he's making in the very first scene, in which a character sitting in a barber's chair on an otherwise plain stage has his thick beard shaved off in two swift razor swipes. Over the next hour or so, almost all the action unfolds on or in front of that stage, with a tone that alternates between intimately genuine and fantastically theatrical — mostly the latter. In Wright's first bit of stunt work with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, we begin with a view of Anna (Keira Knightley) being dressed for the day, only to have that dressing room set lift to the rafters as Anna walks forward off the stage, through passersby in front of the stage (suggesting her walk through town) and then through the door of another backdrop that plops down in front of her as a desk is rolled in from the side to become the office of her husband (Jude Law). Not long after that, the office of Anna's brother, Oblonsky (a bubbly Matthew Macfadyen), is transitioned into a restaurant over a wild 90 seconds in which the camera moves through the set in the shape of a "5" and then keeps turning in a big circle until all signs of the previous set are gone and only the restaurant parlor remains. Awhile later, all the key players are seated in front of the stage, as audience to an opera that will appear on it, until the curtain lifts and chandeliers descend, and suddenly the seated crowd in front of the stage has been replaced by dancers at an after party. Wright's film, written by Tom Stoppard, delights in such stylistic feats. But there's substance within that style, to be sure.
As adapted by Wright and Stoppard, Anna Karenina is a tale of forbidden desire that causes inner torment in private and scandal in public. Placing the drama on a literal stage symbolizes, first and foremost, how all eyes are on Anna as she falls under the spell of Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the young blue-eyed officer she is helpless to resist, whose preoccupation with Anna is impossible to ignore. Beyond that, though, all the whirling camera movements and rapid set changes within the same confined space suggest Anna's swirling emotions and her need to adopt multiple identities to suit each moment — faithful wife, chaste flirt, yearning seductress, and so on. Cinematically as well as thematically, Vronsky is the craving that Anna can't outrun, because he consumes her every thought and lingers around every corner. Wright's all-inside-the-opera-house approach not only acknowledges the inherent melodrama, it increases the friction between characters by tightening their proximity. It's simply not possible within this pressurized snow globe for Anna and Vronsky to hide their love away — from the public, one another, or themselves. It's there for all to see.
Working with Wright for the third time, Knightley is nothing short of ravishing as Anna. I've already written one love letter to Knightley this year, so I'm hesitant to pen another, but while she worked against-type in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, here Wright utilizes Knightley's strengths: from her striking features to her throbbing passion to her emotional fragility. Despite impressive performances in their previous collaborations (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement), I admit I'd never considered Knightley a "great" actress, but I do now. She isn't meant for every role, of course. Few actors are. But I can't think of another actress of her generation who has such innate, effortless sexual charisma. It's as if Knightley came out of the womb flirting. In one terrific little scene before Anna and Vronsky consummate their affair, Anna scolds her admirer about one of his earlier advances: "You behaved badly — very badly," Anna says. But her eyebrow is arched. Her eyes are bright. Her tongue seems playful. Anna's words tell Vronsky that he misbehaved, but everything else confirms that she loved it. Later on, Knightley is equally brilliant in the movie's most outstanding sequence, when Wright manages to bring a horse race into the opera house and the rapid fluttering of Anna's fan suggests her pounding heart as she nervously watches Vronsky race, unable to contain her emotions even while she's aware of her husband's suspicious gaze.
Not every scene has such electricity. The long dance sequence in which Vronsky first advances on Anna is meant to dazzle but falls flat. Even worse, not long after Anna admits her affair to her husband (a nice scene for both Knightley and Law), Wright's film loses momentum almost entirely with an hour still to go — mostly because the energetic and imaginative staging of the seduction acts is deliberately abandoned as the movie heads on its long yet rushed trip toward tragedy. (Coincidentally or not, Atonement did better with desire than downfall, too.) It goes without saying at this point that Wright's film isn't for Tolstoy traditionalists (the accents are British, for crying out loud), but those familiar with the story will enjoy its elements of foreshadowing, particularly a moment at the end of that uninspiring dance sequence when an overwhelmed Anna turns away from the dance floor and sees through a window an oncoming train that will take her back to St. Petersburg, presuming it doesn't run over her first. A shot like that would be nonsensical in a movie with traditional geographic space. Here, it's entirely appropriate. Anna Karenina isn't quite a great film, but it has plenty of greatness with it (it might contain five of my top 25 images of the year). And in the end it's a tremendous example of what's possible when a filmmaker manages to marry his protagonist's passions with his own.