Anna Karenina comes courtesy of Joe Wright, a director who inspires confidence having delivered some of the best character pieces in recent years. His adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, superior to the much hailed BBC version and Atonement the best picture winner established a successful working relationship between Wright and Keira Knightley.
Anna Karenina is their third film together. Unfortunately it is no less than a disaster.
Has there ever been a less sympathetic character than Keira Knightley’s version Anna Karenina? Sure Hannibal Lecter, but at least he had charaisma. This however is just one of the problems in a film littered with flaws, Anna Karenina is a fractured mess. Knightley’s performance is big and not in a good way. It’s very much a performance you would find on the stage, one without the subtleties we expect from seasoned actors. It is over theatrical and is perhaps informed by the conceit which Wright employs to varying degrees of success throughout the film.
Wright films a huge amount of the film in a theatre which is redressed throughout and often on camera, to reflect various settings from the novel. Wright does not try to hide his low budget but instead attempts to make an asset of it, by showcasing his supposed ingenuity. The result is beautiful but ultimately misjudged.
Though certainly original it achieves little more than to expose the fictionality of the universe the characters inhabit, making it difficult to care about what transpires. It also renders the material painfully constricted. The transitions from scene to scene are frequently jarring, falling short of the impact which was supposedly intended. A particular scene featuring a train speeding across the tracks actually annoyed me. Not because it was accomplished though miniature work, and not because it was done through what would be traditionally regarded as awful and obvious miniature work. It was because I was genuinely unsure if this miniature work was supposed to be obvious.
The great shame of Anna Karenina is that when Wright does not employ his gimmick and instead shoots in a more traditional manner, the result is as beautiful as anything he has ever done. It is in these scenes that Anna Karenina is most successful.
Rarely during the film is the audience allowed to forget that this film is a construction, the directors heavy hand is felt throughout as he tells us what to feel, whether it is invasive lighting, or telling camera angles. At times it must be said the feelings you are beckoned to feel seem contradictory, you may wonder in a particular scene why music traditionally associated with a villain is being played in regard to a situation where you would naturally feel sympathetic.
At the time of Atonement’s release, much praise was heaped on the extended tracking shot, showcasing Dunkirk. Here the tracking shot becomes a source of agony, it is used egregiously where another director may just cut. Achieving little more than to slow down an already incredibly slow film. Wright favours the two shot and the medium shot, preferring to shoot wide.
The supporting performances are largely excellent, praise must go to Jude Law and Matthew Mcfadyen. It is just a shame that the relationship between Anna and Count Vronsky is never really that engrossing. Aaron Johnson does his best, but he and Knightley do feel mismatched, and unfortunately it is their relationship which comprises the main body of the film.
A subplot featuring Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander as Levin and Kitty is the redeeming heart of Anna Karenina, while watching the film I found myself waiting for them to reappear. I can honestly say that if the rest of the film achieved a modicum of the pathos they engender then this would be a great success. Unfortunately that is not the case.
Though credit must be given for trying something new, this is one to simply avoid.