Sunday, November 25, 2012

Anna Karenina Review: Costume Porn at Its Finest

WordMaster



           
              In Act 2, Scene 7, of his comedy As You Like It, William Shakespeare penned the now-ubiquitous aphorism, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” It’s impossible not to think of this quote when watching Anna Karenina – the movie is, after all, literally set on a stage. Director Joe Wright has stated that this decision was provoked primarily by financial obligations, but as it turns out, it also works perfectly on an artistic level, since this is a story about, among other things, the fragile boundaries between public and private, duty and desire, and what happens when they collapse.

               From the outset, the movie was bound to be polarizing; for every person who thinks the whole stage-as-metaphor conceit is a stroke of genius, several others will probably write it off as a pretentious gimmick. Admittedly, at times, it does come off as a tad too mannered and theatrical, more fitting for a Broadway musical than a prestigious cinematic literary adaptation, but for the most part, Wright manages to pull it off, exercising just enough restraint to prevent the entire thing from disintegrating into an overly lavish and chaotic extravaganza a la Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The grandiosity fits impeccably with the epic scale and melodramatic tone of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel (dubbed by some the greatest work of literature ever written).

              Make no mistake, though: if nothing else, Anna Karenina is a visual masterpiece. The film opens with an awe-inspiring scene, in which the camera sweeps through the various interconnected stages in a single glorious, unbroken take, and from there, the audience is plunged into a kaleidoscope of dazzling colors and surreal, painterly images. Each set is designed with such exquisite detail and each costume so sumptuous in its stately grandeur that it’s almost overwhelming; even the actors have a certain elegance to them, waltzing across the stage with the dignified grace of ballerinas, always moving in fluid circles. That all the opulence isn’t overwhelming is a credit to Wright, who, with Pride and Prejudice, Hanna and now Anna Karenina, has evolved into one of the most aesthetically daring filmmakers working today.

               In one particularly memorable scene, Wright stages an elaborate ball that appears to involve the entire upper echelon of Russian society. At first, it moves along slowly, the camera drifting between the numerous dancers and eventually settling on the two central characters – Anna and Kitty – as they vie for Count Vronsky’s attention. When Anna and Vronsky take the floor together, the rest of the couples freeze, motionless, until the lights fade out, and the star-crossed lovers are left dancing alone in the dark. As the tension between Anna and Kitty escalates, the camera moves gradually faster, jumping between the two women so rapidly that the screen becomes a dizzying whirlwind of motion, color and music (courtesy of the old-fashioned, tempestuous score provided by Dario Marianelli), capturing a wealth of emotions without the benefit of a single line of dialogue. The sequence is a remarkable study in how to convey turmoil while maintaining the illusion of control and purpose.

               But is Anna Karenina anything beyond a two-hour parade of eye candy? It’s debatable. Some might complain that the movie fawns over ornate costumes and extravagant sets to the detriment of its story and characters, and indeed, when not centered on the splendid visuals (i.e. for much of the second half), it does lose some of its energy. Also, for all his technical skill and ambition, Wright has yet to master the art of subtlety (could the train foreshadowing be more obvious?). Still, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a film based on a story that’s already been told and retold dozens of times, the emphasis on visuals rather than plot helps breathe new life into what would otherwise be little more than yet another stuffy, Oscar-baiting period piece. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard does a fantastic job of trimming Tolstoy’s 800-page book into a coherent film that, at 130 minutes, just barely exceeds the standard two-hour mark. Although the movie naturally can’t capture the thematic complexity of its sprawling source material, it’s one of the few adaptations that manages to both stay faithful to the original and develop a soul of its own. 

                It certainly doesn’t hurt that, as Anna and Vronsky, Keira Knightley and Aaron Johnson are magnificent. Despite playing rather unsympathetic characters, they exude effortless charisma and poise, infusing their relationship, doomed though it may be, with an irresistible sensuality and making them a fascinating pair to watch. Thanks to Knightley and Johnson’s performances, by turns haughty, earnest and vulnerable, Anna Karenina is not only stunning to look at but also passionately, achingly romantic.





Links:
http://www.aceshowbiz.com/still/00007025/anna-karenina-picture02.html

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