Look at it: color and light more exquisite than anything nature could ever create, lines that curve and swoop like mechanical birds or onion domes, hidden surprises that appear tiny until you look at them under a microscope and realize they are keys that unlock small universes.
“It” could be any of a number of the masterworks by Carl Fabergé currently showing at the Detroit Institute of Art—or any of a number of shots in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. The director has created a movie as intricate as the master jeweler’s most spectacular works, and that also recalls the sensuality, richness, and addiction to beauty exemplified by the Ballet Russe under Diaghilev. In fact, Wright’s brilliant and very risky concept is to let the story play out like a Russian fairy tale performed in a grand but crumbling theater. I gasped, sighed, and just smiled from the sheer imagination and audacity of Wright’s shooting time and again while watching his Tolstoy interpretation yesterday.
But the film moved me by its beauty, and only by that; after a promising start, I never felt carried away by emotion or story. I am a Joe Wright champion, and I think his adaptations to date have been superb. I love his Pride and Prejudice more than any other. I know many people, especially Austen freaks, who swear by the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehly version, but Wright’s feels so precarious to me, as if things may fall apart at any moment; there seems so much at stake in the proceedings, and Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen are marvelous. Atonement is even better, somehow making a desperately tricky, multiple viewpoint book work on screen as it grasps McEwan’s point, the tyrannical power of the imagination. (A.O. Scott argues that both those movies are safe, citing that fans do not protest them. Bollocks to him. Fans don’t protest because both movies are beautifully adapted.)
Anna does not work on the same level, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. It’s a bit like watching fireworks, dazzling, breathtaking; I remember particular scenes with extreme pleasure. Yes, they are disconnected from the story to a degree, but the story still matters. But it’s a massive story, and one that, for maximum effect, would be told simply. It’s a bit of a catch-22; surely the complexity, the whole Chinese puzzle box aspect of just about any Russian novel of the period can’t help but inspire extraordinary visions to an imagination like Wright’s. What you end up with is a bit like drinking a multi-layered potion and then following it up with a multi-layered amuse bouche, then a multi-layered appetizer, then a multi-layered soup, etc., etc., etc. You could appreciate the drink more if you didn’t have all that yummy food to go with it.
Wright’s so good, he almost pulls it off. The opening, in which backdrops of the massive old theater set replace constantly as the action changes in front of them, is a wow. It’s the first non-musical movie I’ve seen where every scene is beautifully choreographed, not just for the many dancers but for the cameras as well. And Macfadyen is surely one of the more underrated of actors; I’m a fan and it took me a long time to recognize him under his bull moose mustache. As Anna’s brother, he’s a bracing burst of amoral bonhomie, and kicking the movie off with his philandering is a neat trick.
The actor’s chemistry onscreen with Knightley is a delight to behold; when he greets her at the train station, their joy and ease with each other feels as genuine as the stage set is artificial.
Knightley herself brings that high-strung, finely tuned quality of hers to her portrayal. But she’s so good at playing restless women, each emotion registering in her flickering sable eyes like quicksilver, that we’ve seen it before, particularly in The Duchess, a very similar role. She’s an actress incapable of playing false, which is only a problem when a script limits her. That, I think, may be one of two failings of the movie. Anna has so many things she has to do, so many people to meet, so many balls and operas to attend, so much stuff to process, that she doesn’t get to just be Anna. We never get to know her, only to see her as a gorgeous bird trapped in a society that cages her soul just as her corsets cage her body. There are brief hints at her devotion as a mother, but there’s no time to follow through. As she becomes addicted to morphine and grows alarming thin, there’s true desolation in Knightley’s eyes, but everything happens so fast we can just race along with her. We really don’t have time to be sad so much as relieved when she finally makes the big jump.
And there’s such tremendous potential. The scene when Vronsky (a very beautiful Aaron Taylor-Johnson) forsakes the sweet young princess who’s fallen hard for him in order to dance with Anna stuns with its beauty, and is more erotic, intimate, and powerful than the actual lovemaking scenes, and in fact than many lovemaking scenes in other movies. The casting is, as usual per Wright, wonderful. Jude Law has finally been given a chance to act and not just stand around looking pretty and slightly disapproving. Harry Potter alum Domhnall Gleeson has marvelous self-control as a landowner with revolutionary sympathies, Olivia Williams is a yummy Countess Vronsky, and Alicia Vikander couldn’t be prettier as the girl whose heart Vronsky breaks.
Meanwhile, the talent behind the cameras is formidable: cinematographer Seamus McGarvey makes the camera dance like Nijinsky, Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran have achieved extraordinary heights with, respectively, production design and costumes, Niall Moroney has headed up a stunning art direction team, Dario Marinelli has provided yet another haunting score, and Melanie Oliver has worked considerable editing magic.
I could go on—and in fact, wish that Wright had done exactly that, which for me is the movie’s other main flaw. It’s rare for me to want a movie to be longer, but I think a four-hour version with time to catch our breath and actually feel things would have made this one of the greatest of all filmed love stories.
But I’m not complaining. I’ll take two hours of gorgeous but imperfect Joe Wright over many of the folks out there making movies right now. Moments of Anna K are etched into my brain after one viewing. Sometimes, sheer beauty is moving enough just because. . . it’s beautiful.