Style over substance is a complaint often lodged against big-budget action movies and slick comic book adaptations. But toward Oscar bait based on famous literature? Not as common.
Yet, here we are with Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina," a retelling of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel, packed to the limit with elaborately lavish theatrics, dressing, camera movements and choreography. The trailers call these things "a bold new vision." I call it a bunch of pretty, meticulously crafted distractions.
As adapted by playwright and "Shakespeare in Love" scribe Tom Stoppard, "Anna Karenina" serves as a fairly trimmed-down telling of Tolstoy's epic tale of loves gained and lost. Keira Knightley (who previously worked with director Wright on his two other literary adaptations, "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement") plays the titular character, a Soviet aristocrat stuck in a dull, lifeless marriage with the respected Count Alexi Karenin, played by Jude Law.
Her wealthy-yet-inert life becomes a public debacle when she falls into an affair with the young and handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from "Kick-Ass"). What ensues is an internal battle between obligation and desire, public image and private desire, and the horrible, fickle forces of love.
At the same time comes a more optimistic tale of love between Levin and Kitty (Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander). It doesn't start well, as she turns down Levin's awkward marriage proposal with the assumption that the charming Vronsky will propose as well. He doesn't, Levin flees to the Russian countryside and Kitty becomes filled with hurt and then regret.
The unique innovation Stoppard and Wright bring to this particular telling of "Anna Karenina" is the staging. That being the literal staging, as Anna's epic battle with the forces of love takes place mostly in an elaborate old theater. A change in setting is often just a walk across the stage away, the backstage mess of ropes, ladders and lights are visible and chandeliers and other settings descend into the frame as though controlled by invisible crewmen while the cast freezes or slows in place. The stage even opens up to reveal a Soviet country winter, a train station or a crucial horse race.
It's an inventive and often captivating storytelling idea (no surprise coming from Wright, whose slick, composed visual sense also made last year's "Hanna" one of the year's best action films) that even fits with the intense melodramatic elements of Tolstoy's tale. So much of Anna's story feels like a theatrical tragedy; it only seems fair to make the audience feel like just another member of the Russian elite, watching her drama with rapt, judgmental attention.
Wright and Stoppard, however, don't stop at the setting. Most of the characters' movements are filled with elaborate choreography and flourishes, whether during a dance or merely entering a building. It adds to the notion of everyone's lives being carefully organized according to society's expectations, structure and blocking.
However, that's exactly what "Anna Karenina" feels like: blocking. Everything is so elaborately planned, frightfully aware and hyper stylized that the emotions and story can barely breathe. It's all very beautiful and visually impressive, but for a story about love and passion, the story feels limp, crushed by the weight of all of its lavish complexities. It also feels mighty rushed, though perhaps that's to be expected when trying to compress an almost-1,000-page novel into a two-hour film.
If any emotion is to be found in "Anna Karenina," it's in the performances. Knightley is compelling as always, a world of suppressed emotions and confusion simmering under her regal chill. She sparks considerable chemistry with Taylor-Johnson, who seems a bit too young but is sufficiently handsome and charming. Law is also very good as well, playing her cold, baffled husband, sympathetically trying to figure out what to do next.
As the younger, blooming romance, Gleeson and Vikander don't make much of an impression, partly because the film's speedy pace doesn't give them much time. However, a conversation involving some children's letter blocks serves as a highlight for the entire film, a rare case of intimate emotion trumping flashy spectacle. Matthew Macfadyen (last seen in Paul W.S. Anderson's regrettable "The Three Musketeers") steals a few scenes as well as Anna's cartoonish brother.
"Anna Karenina" has the cast and the content to be a great literary adaptation. Instead, style wins out. In the end, it resembles a cake covered in a foot of frosting and sprinkles. The cake may be delicious, but it's impossible to taste underneath all of its décor. It sure looks nice though.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published April 23, 2015
Lord Huron doesn't quite trek to the stars like it said it might on its new album "Strange Trails," but the folk band is still going places. Its dreamy musical vistas have nabbed a big audience -- so much so that demand moved the band's return to The Pabst Theater on Saturday, April 25 over to the Riverside. Before then, I got a chance to chat with frontman Ben Schneider about "Strange Trails," the stories that come with it and going to space (at some point).
Published April 22, 2015
I've had some less than flattering things to say about found footage in recent years, calling it things like "the worst of today's low budget Hollywood filmmaking" and "a thing that shouldn't exist anymore." So let's all take a moment and marvel at the fact that in the new techno-horror flick "Unfriended," the found footage-esque visual gimmick not only works, but it's the best part of the movie. The result isn't much for scares, but it is scarily entertaining.
Published April 21, 2015
Welcome back to Unceremonious Overqualified Movie Dump Theatre. The most recent entry: "Child 44," which features an impressive roster of stars but was cut down to a mere 510 theaters just a few weeks before its release. It was a bad omen and unfortunately an accurate one as well, as the apparent lack of confidence from the studio equals a lack of quality on the screen.
Published April 20, 2015
The Maine is currently on the road right now, touring in support of its latest album "American Candy," released just last month on March 31. Its current tour lands at The Rave on Wednesday, April 22. Before then, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with guitarist Jared Monaco about the new album, as well as his appreciation for The Rave and ... NSYNC.
Published April 18, 2015
Before the fairy tale riff "Peter and the Starcatcher" starts its run at the Milwaukee Rep on Tuesday, April 21, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with director Blake Robison about this particular Peter Pan retelling, making actors fly and why revisionist fairy tales are currently all the rage.
Published April 17, 2015
The Wisconsin State Fair's Main Stage lineup this summer features some of the biggest names the celebration has wrangled up in recent note. And the biggest of the bunch - or at least certainly the most unusual - is tightrope artist extraordinaire Nik Wallenda. OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to talk one-on-one with the stuntman about preparing for another life-threatening performance and being in a highwire family dynasty that shows no sign of stopping.
Published April 17, 2015
The Riverside's distant past will become the present as the legendary theater will play host to two screenings of the beloved 1942 classic "Casablanca" Friday and Saturday night. And to complete the blast to the past vibe of the event, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Max Steiner's famous score alongside the movie.
Published April 15, 2015
Eugene Ionesco's 1950 play "The Bald Soprano" - the first the famed playwright ever wrote - is an absurdist classic. It's one of the most performed shows in France with a permanent repertory spot at Theatre de la Huchette since 1957 and a large number of interpretations. It's safe to say, however, that few to none of those interpretations featuring digital actors getting beamed in like "Star Trek" characters.
Published April 14, 2015
The Blue Man Group is famous for several things: funky instruments, those old Intel ads, Tobias Funke proclaiming that "I blue myself!" on "Arrested Development" and, of course, the whole being covered in blue paint thing. But one of the crucial elements of the Blue Man Group is that they don't talk. So imagine my surprise in getting to interview a Blue Man (at least the transcription would be easy).
Published April 14, 2015
Tomorrow night, after weeks of anticipation and online voting, the Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDIs) will name the winners at a ceremony at the Potawatomi Event Center. However, there's still 24 hours left to learn about these community-impacting individuals and organizations and vote for the Wells Fargo People's Choice Award before the polls close and the numbers are tallied up.