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In 'Anna Karenina,' the director gets in the way of what could have been a fine film

As a director, Joe Wright largely thinks in terms of sweeping romances.

His Pride and Prejudice played it close to the vest, while Atonement swung the pendulum entirely in the other direction, focusing more on his own craftsmanship and big thinking as a filmmaker. Anna Karenina is more like Atonement, although with such a beloved novel as its launching pad, perhaps Wright should have kept his hands in his pockets a bit more: His style dwarfs the substance.

Presented at times as a play—with scenes occurring in the fly gallery above the stage or with a crew moving sets on and off camera—Anna Karenina really isn't about the story at all. It's about seeing what tricks and gimmicks Joe Wright can bring to the story. The actors are effectively the background, and the mechanics of the filmmaking are what stars. It's an incredibly selfish way to make a movie.

On the other hand, it could also be an exhilarating way to make this movie. Wright frees himself from the traditional trappings of epic, doomed love stories and tragic heroines by giving us, for lack of a better comparison, Moulin Rouge! without the songs. It is arch, outwardly artistic, shamelessly broad, annoyingly colorful and more than a little brash—but that has more significant disadvantages than advantages.

There are other considerations beyond the director's vision, however, principally concerning the performances. Despite being married, Anna (Keira Knightley) has taken a lover, the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This was no small thing in aristocratic 19th-century Russian society. Because Wright's tinkering cuts to the chase of every conversation, there is no emotional buildup in any scene; each confrontation or confession of love is full-throated from beginning to end. The effect is that each scene feels cut together like a movie trailer, where you're only supposed to get the main points. Wright's directing was likely brutal on the actors, particularly Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, whose characters actually do have a wide range of emotions to convey, but are forced by design to treat each one like a paint swatch, merely and quickly representing something more real. Knightley, who has chosen not to handle Anna with kid gloves and displays some genuine ugliness, has to bounce from romance-literature icon to Cruella de Vil. It's just not convincing.

As her old-news husband, Jude Law is more measured. As her philandering, high-living brother, Matthew Macfadyen makes quite an impression, thanks to fewer scenes and a devil-may-care approach. But this all underscores the point: Because Law is supposed to be cloaked in melancholy most of the time, that emotion is conveyed more easily. And because Macfadyen is supposed to make us laugh, it's an easier target to hit.

They're outlying characters, and our connection to Anna Karenina doesn't flow from them. We just can't bounce in as many directions as Anna does, as quickly as she does, because of the way this film is woven together. It's troubling to see a potentially great performance by Knightley undercut like this. To be sure, she is not at the top of her game, but how could she be when her character is merely set dressing for the machinations of the director that he so desperately wants you to see instead?

On a positive note, let it not be said that this is anything but a gorgeous-looking film. The production design is immaculate and daring, and the costumes would make peacocks blush. It is beautiful down to its last stitch. But, of course, if you were showing off as much as Joe Wright, why would you spare any expense on the baubles?

Anna Karenina
Rated R · 129 minutes · 2012
Official Site: focusfeatures.com/anna_karenina
Director: Joe Wright
Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster and Liza Chasin
Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Oskar McNamara, Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson and Emily Watson

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What others are saying (11)

Creative Loafing Charlotte Anna Karenina: From Russia with love Rating: *** by Matt Brunson 11/30/2012
Charleston City Paper Joe Wright's sumptuous adaptation of Anna Karenina is a bit of a mess This is Wright's movie first and an adaptation of Tolstoy's novel second. Wright worked with playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt the story to screen, and the two don't just drown the narrative in overt stylizations, they excise and re-emphasize sections and subplots as they see fit. Anna Karenina has been turned from a multi-faceted novel into a delectably sensual yarn. by Jake Mulligan 12/05/2012
8 more reviews...
Colorado Springs Independent Staged romance: Anna Karenina Well, there's Keira Knightley again. by Tricia Olszewski 11/28/2012
Indy Week Anna Karenina catches her train Joe Wright's visualization of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel about adulterous passion is audacious. by Laura Boyes 11/28/2012
East Bay Express Anna Karenina One-track mind. by Kelly Vance 11/21/2012
The Coast Halifax Anna Karenina Sure it's long, but not long enough to do justice to complex characters by Molly Segal 11/29/2012
Memphis Flyer Anna Karenina The adaptation reimagined. by Greg Akers 11/29/2012
Style Weekly Movie Review: "Anna Karenina" A gorgeous, risk-taking adaptation of Tolstoy's classic. by Wayne Melton 11/27/2012
Portland Mercury Anna KareninWHAAAA?! Hey lit nerds! Prepare yourselves to fight over Anna Karenina! by Jamie S. Rich 11/21/2012
Creative Loafing Atlanta Lavish art direction upstages love triangle in Anna Karenina Keira Knightley's performance trapped on set by Curt Holman 11/20/2012

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