Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Anna Karenina: Art for Entertainment's Sake

I suspect that Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is wildly unsatisfying from a literary adaptation standpoint, historical standpoint, and film grammar standpoint but if there is one thing about the movie, it is alive.

In spite of its pedigree – adapted from one of history’s most celebrated novels, bolstered by Oscar nominated performers and filmmakers, lavished with extravagant set design and virtuoso camerawork – the film's primary interest is entertainment. And this is a good thing. It’s precisely that desire that made Wright's Pride and Prejudice such a resounding success. Anna Karenina isn't nearly as successful, it's too busy for starters, but for all it's failings, it does share Pride & Prejudice's defining trait: this is a period piece that feels immediate.

Anna Karenina transports you not only to a different time but a different world. The characters don't necessarily move or behave like humans and the world they inhabit is barely recognizable. That’s because the movie is filmed almost exclusively on sound stages and much of the time that’s made readily apparent by revealing the different facades or miniatures. The filmmakers have gone on record that this decision was made partly out of economic necessity but surely they are reaching for a subtextual significance as well. I’m not sure how rewarding it would be too spend too much time analyzing the film but on a fundamental level, the affectation does serve as a nice illustration of the pretense and theatricality required for high society. During the love / lust sections of the movie, the artifice takes less prominence and the true emotions take center stage. At the end of the day though, it all feels more Moulin Rouge than Dogville.

But I don’t want to undermine how incredibly entertaining this picture is to watch. And the fact that it takes such a boldly stylistic approach gives the film a real personality and inspires plenty of conversation points post-viewing. Joe Wright is one of my favorite working filmmakers and with the possible exception of The Soloist, his films never fail to be emotionally stirring and technically captivating.