I have to admire the gumption of Universal Pictures releasing Anna Karenina on Valentine's Day. The cheek of them to con romantic audiences, that really ought to know better, into seeing a film on "the most romantic day of the year" in which failed love dooms a woman to madness makes me smile like a Bond villain. I mean, hello, Anna Karenina's obsessions, drug addiction, and paranoia lead her to a rather untimely end underneath a steam train! So, really, just the sort of thing to get you in the mood. In the days after seeing Anna Karenina these loved up couples will be staring at their vase of dying roses and I can't think of anything more appropriate for an invented day of such commercial leanings.
I admire Joe Wright greatly. I think he is capable of truly wonderful cinema and, in some sort of way, he has done for the so-called "stuffy period piece" what the collaborations between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who gets somewhat ignored) did nearly 30 years ago with A Room with a View, Maurice, The Remains of the Day, and Howards End. Of course, these are the very "stuffy period piece" films that many think Wright is updating for modern audiences. Many forget how fresh and alive that Merchant Ivory were at the time, and still are. Still, it's hard to argue that Wright at least turns them up to eleven and has been doing so since Pride & Prejudice in 2005, which remains his greatest achievement so far. Atonement and now Anna Karenina are undoubtedly flawed, but their energy and verve are almost unparalleled by modern filmmakers. They have gumption - there's that word again, which is odd since I so rarely actually use it - where others may consider resting on their laurels. If Anna Karenina is the weakest of Wright's unofficial trilogy, then he certainly attempts to reach for something truly grand in the process.
If anything, I wished Anna Karenina - all 130 minutes of it, which takes a cleaver to Tolstoy's original text from what I can gather - had been even more over the top. It is lavishly produced, that's for sure, and it's hard to deny that the Oscar nominated costumes (Jacqueline Durran), production design (Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer), cinematography (Seamus McGarvey), and music (Dario Marianelli) are exceptional and exquisite (all five have been nominated/won for prior Joe Wright titles), but Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard appear to have held back when they should have been pushing forward, much like the films reoccurring locomotive. The film sets up the device of Anna's life being all a big show for the world's stage by using a theatre set-up that includes rotating sets, doors leading to exotic locales, a backstage lot where some of the truest of feelings are felt, and the stalls which frequently sit both onlookers are miscellaneous others. However, the film all too often ditches its concept for more traditional storytelling and the juxtaposition is jarring. Where one scene sees stagehands moving props and lighting the set for the latest of Anna's opulent get-togethers, the next scene is seemingly played out in a room off-stage. It's as if they suspected fully committing to the idea would be too much for audiences who were probably already trying to wrap their minds around the dense plot.
Every feather, fur, and a lace-lined gown is so delicately placed with stunning jewels and an array of hats fit for the racing season (apt, too, given one of the film's stand out sequences is an on-stage horse face), with chandeliers and mahogany filling out most rooms of the Karenina mansion. There's a richness to the entire production that is hard to resist, plus I even found myself somewhat attracted to Aaron Taylor-Johnson and his mop of blonde hair and thin moustache. That's certainly something I didn't expect from the promotional material. I would have liked the relationship between Anna and Jude Law's Alexie to be more illuminating, however, since it proves hard to root for the tempestuous Anna when her husband seems like a perfectly honourable man (in the grand scheme of things). Especially since Law is doing some really fine work here, but apart from a bedside ultimatum, he so rarely gets the chance to show off like everybody is doing.
If anything, Anna Karenina made me think even higher of Pride & Prejudice. I didn't think that possible, and yet here I am doing so. That film is a marvel of vitality with a fresh take on the material. Anna Karenina is certainly a new conception of the famous Tolstoy story, but it appears to not have enough conviction in its boldness to carry it through for the entire length of the film. This period of aristocratic Russian history is certainly a tailor-made toybox for Wright and Knightley to play about in, but they needed to go harder with their ideas to make a finished product that's as invigorating as they all think it is. B