I never thought I’d see the day when I saw a film too smart for mainstream critics. This is that day. A visually stunning, intellectually challenging, and altogether beautiful adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel.
We all know the story. Or at least we should, because we’re all literate and intelligent, right? So I’ll skip over the plot introduction. Wikipedia it if you need to, then come back. But avoid spoilers.
Alright. You good? Great.
Joe Wright is known for directing visual masterpieces starring Keira Knightley, releasing them to high critical and decent commercial acclaim (see Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). So he’s trying to replicate the formula here–or so it seems. In reality, the director known for sweeping long takes and moving emotional drama has both reinforced and subverted the conventions of his own style with this Tolstoy adaptation.
The visual style deserves some serious discussion. Nearly the entirety of the film takes place on a single stage. That’s not hyperbole–even the outdoor sets are meant to exist on the indoor stage. It’s difficult to explain, so I’ll say you should see it to fully understand it. It’s beautiful to watch, if difficult to comprehend at first. The only scenes that take place outside the stage and are shot on location as such are the scenes that take place in the country. The scenes that take place in the stage are the scenes in upper-crust areas, and the setting is beautifully symbolic. The stage is meant to represent the theatricality of an imperial existence, that each of the members of Russian high society are each players in a complex play that must put on a false persona, whether or not that persona suits them. The cutting and the locations in the scenes in the country are simple and beautiful, but most of all, depicting a wide open and free environment. The freedom, the emphasis on the beauty of the lack of roles despite the lack of supposed high-class culture, allows a sharp contrast to the constraints of high society.
But of course, the film is really about love. That’s what Anna Karenina is in a nutshell, a treatise on love. This is where the film both succeeds immensely and falters slightly. As a treatise on the ideals of love, it absolutely succeeds. In depicting the actual romance, Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (a legend in his own right) choose to skip over some crucial emotional (and plot-related) beats in characters’ relationships and allow the audience to fill in the blanks, which has upset some critics as they perceive the romance that follows to be shallower than necessary. While this might be a valid artistic choice and an efficient time-saver (considering the 2-hour-plus runtime, probably a good thing), it alienates viewers who don’t know the plot and forces them to work harder to achieve emotional impact. While I’m all for placing trust in the audience to put 2+2 together, it would have been nicer to see Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from Kick-Ass) and titular Anna (Knightley) truly fall for each other. It would invest us in them and their conflicts more.
Although it is entirely possible that that was a deliberate choice. Anna is a character who makes despicable choices for relatable reasons, and the point of a film like this is for the audience to walk out debating Anna’s actions and to determine their own concepts of love, and giving too much weight to her relationship with Vronsky could bias us against Alexei Karenin (a phenomenally subtle Jude Law), her lovely, selfless husband who gets pretty well shafted by Anna’s love for another man. There is another major subplot revolving around an awkward country man named Levin (a delightful Domnhall Gleeson, last seen as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) and an upper-class girl named Kitty (Alicia Vikander) that epitomizes the good side of love in contrast to Anna’s bad side, and the idealistic vs. the realistic, one of the more interesting debates in the film.
“Sensual desire indulged for its own sake is the misuse of something sacred.” – Levin
The technical work is genius. Oscar nominations are likely headed to Seamus McGarvey for cinematography and the costume and production designers. Dario Marianelli delivers an opulent score that might slip under the radar, and Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing certainly deserves praise for thematically building metaphors, not overcutting and building dramatic tension smartly.
It’s nice to see a film like this existing in the modern landscape–a film of such ambition, visual beauty, sensuality and intelligence. Whether it will connect with mainstream audiences or even mainstream critics is yet to be seen. But it’s definitely something that should. Go see it.