Skip to main content

It would be a sin to help you destroy yourself.


Anna Karenina
(2012)

Unfortunately, I haven’t read the greatest novel ever written. I’m such an uncultured ignoramus that I haven’t read any Tolstoy, let alone in untranslated form (one simply must, in order to savour his nuances). This should be neither here nor there when it comes to appreciation of a film version. Ultimately, it will be for those familiar with a text or other source material; deviation tends to be regarded somewhere between creatively inadvisable and outright sacrilegious.

With Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina there are additional problems with approaching it as a distinct work in its own right, as he embraces a purposefully distracting (at least initially) artifice by setting much of the melodrama in and around a stage. Wright has argued that this highlights the theatrical fakery of the Russian aristocracy, but we know that’s really bullshit. It’s because (a) he couldn’t get the money together for an outright 19th century epic and (b) he fancies himself as an auteur wont to make such idiosyncratic choices. Hey, if he fails at least he can claim it was a brave and misunderstood choice.

Ultimately the problems with his film, coming from an unversed layman untutored in the world of the Russian novel, have little to do with his stylistic choices, however. Mostly they relate to his singular failure to allow the audience to identify with the central characters. This is, likely, partly an issue of casting; I have seen many comments singling Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky in particular as a misstep. Certainly, Taylor-Johnson has revealed himself as very much a “hair” actor this year; what with his bleach blonde here and dreads in Savages.

But my greater problem is with Karenina herself. I was consistently conscious of how little insight is provided into the choices made by Keira Knightley’s Anna. Vronksy is a blank slate, almost as if there was zero interest in fleshing him out, but surely the title character shouldn’t be quite so undernourished that her long-suffering husband Karenin seems like an absolute saint? Don’t you, as director, have a responsibility to ensure your audience at least becomes involved with the fate of the main protagonist?

I’m hesitant to say Knightley is miscast for reasons of ignorance of the source material, but she didn’t seem the perfect fit of her earlier Wright literary collaboration, Pride & Prejudice. Part of the blame for the failure to make us care for the leads must go to Tom Stoppard, as the adaptor of the novel. Stoppard has delivered screen work both triumphant (Brazil, Shakespeare in Love, the recent Parade’s End) and middling (most of the rest), and this definitely falls into the latter category. We are not invited to understand her choices; she seems selfish and transitory, rushing after a vacuous pretty boy, leaving her child and showing no remorse towards her husband. Are we expected to shed a conciliatory tear when high society spurns her?

Karenin, meanwhile, may be a stuffy intellectual but he is shown to respond to her whims in a measured and fair fashion until she waves her affair in his face one time too often. If Wright is iffy in his choice of leads, he is bang on casting Law. I’ve had an about turn regarding the actor in the past few years as he has made the transition from vain leading duties to supporting parts showing the extent of his talent. Balding, bespectacled and bearded, Law is suitably “propped” visually, but this is one of the best things he’s done on the big screen. It’s interesting to see him become something of an elder statesman here, surrounded by juniors both in age and acting chops. The other prop acting is the curious choice by Wright to focus on Karenin’s use of 19th century johnnies, which does rather tell you a director is fixating on the trees and missing the wood.

Wright’s decisions over when to permit exteriors appears somewhat arbitrary. Apparently, the only many character seen outside the theatre is Levin (Domhall Gleeson) as he sees the falseness of the artistocracy and distances himself from them. Thus, we see him working away in fields of wheat (cue Love and Death). Yet, I could have sworn exterior establishing shots are used for scenes involving Anna and others (and were the country house scenes all filmed at Shepperton; the level of artifice appeared to wax and wane?) This goes to muddy the point Wright is making. More of a concern in general is that it’s a distracting device, even when Wright pulls off dazzling visual coups. The director has his work cut out for him as it is trying to make these characters work, let alone piling on the disassociation.

When his flourishes succeed, they make a strong impression; the horseracing scene is gripping, and the moment where Anna flees her husband, finding herself with Vronsky seconds later as she hurries to him through a garden maze, is a bravura sleight of hand. Wright also steals effectively from himself during the ball sequence, as Anna and Vronsky find themselves alone in the room, so caught up with each other are they (the director did the same thing in Pride & Prejudice). Wright’s a talented director, but he borders on the pretentious in his desire to make the literary trendy. It’s telling that his best film is the one with the least illusions, 2011’s action flick Hanna.

It's little surprise that this has been nominated chiefly in technical categories at the Oscars. That's the problem; all the attention has gone on the production design, costumes and camera work at the expense of the tale itself. 

It’s the pervading lack of depth that does the most damage. Supporting characters are insufficiently integrated; Macfadyen is charismatically mustachioed whenever he appears but this is too infrequent. Strong as Gleeson is, Stoppard appears to be paying lip service to including the character; the intellectual discussions of class don’t seem to involve either Stoppard or Wright. So it’s left to arena of sexual propriety to explore the high society and its values. And, as mentioned, this fails because the characters aren’t there.

At some point I’m sure Joe Wright will make a truly great film. Hanna was close, but both Atonement and The Soloist were patchy affairs. His Pride & Prejudice is a much more satisfying adaptation than Anna Karenina. There the choices added vibrancy and freshness to the much-filmed novel. With Anna Karenina, he appears to have over-thought his visual language and under-honed his cast. The result is sporadically engrossing but ultimately uneven and rather shallow; it’s a film that becomes about the window dressing rather than the story and characters.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.