A Stunning Karenina

Joe Wright‘s Anna Karenina (Focus Features, 11.16.12) will have its detractors (in my screening today five or six people were actually chuckling at it during a high-emotion scene in the late second act) but for me it’s a serious, drop-your-socks knockout — the first truly breathtaking high-style film of the year, a non-musical successor to Moulin Rouge and a disciple of the great ’70s films of Ken Russell (and by that I mean pre-Mahler Russell, which means The Music Lovers and Women In Love) as well as Powell-Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.

You either go with the proscenium-arch grandiosity of a film like Anna Karenina or you don’t (and I was just talking in the Bell Lightbox lobby with a critic who didn’t care for it) but if you ask me it has all the essential ingredients of a bold-as-brass Best Picture contender — an excitingly original approach, cliff-leaping audacity, complex choreography, the balls to go classic and crazy at the same time, a wild mixture of theatricality and romantic realism, a superbly tight and expressive script by Tom Stoppard and wowser operatic acting with a special hat-tip to Keira Knightley as Anna — a Best Actress performance if I’ve ever seen one.

The brazen idea behind Wright’s film is that he’s presenting a completely theatrical environment, and therefore defined by and subject to the terms of live theatre. The film literally takes place in a 19th Century theatre with the orchestra seats removed, and yet it’s a special kind of theatre that dissolves and opens up from time to time — regularly, literally — and thus allowing Wright and his players to run out or zoom into a semi-naturalistic world. But one is mostly aware that we’re watching a play that is choreographed like a musical or a ballet with broad but delicious acting and some magnificent dance sequences and killer production design and break-open walls and actors sometimes freezing in their tracks and becoming tableau.

I can imagine some people saying “whoa…this is too much” but like I said, either you understand the concept and accept it…or you don’t. I loved every minute of it except for a portion in the third act when it seems to run out of gas. But it revs up again at the finale.

I’m being kicked out of the Bell Lightbox press lounge as we speak so I guess I’ll have to add to this later on this evening, but I couldn’t feel more excited and elevated.

Those snide bitches who chuckled during this afternoon’s screening needed to be hauled out by the collar and slapped around. If they had been watching Wright’s film as a literal theatrical presentation (and it could be presented that way with modifications), they wouldn’t have dared to laugh at any projection of tragic intensity. No one who understands and respects theatre would do that.

I didn’t mean to suggest that Anna Karenina is as good or almost as good as Moulin Rouge but without the music — it’s a much tonier and classier production than Baz Luhrman‘s film, in my view, although it’s coming from the same general ballpark. And of course it’s a much darker thing than Moulin Rouge, given the Leo Tolstoy source material.

I hate having to stop writing but I’m really being kicked out of here…eff me.

24 thoughts on “A Stunning Karenina

  1. Breedlove on said:

    I have to confess, I was bummed when I read a few days ago that this was some kind of weird experimental-sounding thing that takes place entirely on a stage or whatever. I was very much looking forward to a straightforward epic. So this is an encouraging reaction. Wright has some chops, for sure. Besides, I finally got around to reading the book last year and kind of hated it, or at least didn’t really get it, so I suppose that shows what my opinion is worth. It’s one thing to go against the grain with a recent critically acclaimed film or something but I’m pretty sure if you dislike ANNA KARENINA you’re just, like, wrong. Come to think of it, I didn’t like Stoppard’s most recent play, either, which all the critics loved. I guess I’ll go watch KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS.

  2. “If they had been watching Wright’s film in a literal theatre (and it could be presented that way with modifications), they wouldn’t have dared to laugh at any projection of tragic intensity.”

    Here’s the problem, though: they weren’t watching it in a “literal theatre.” Different medium, different results.

    This sounds sort of abysmal to me, so I’ll probably be skipping it. But I readily acknowledge the fact that I’m a far cry from the target audience for this thing.

  3. If this is very reminiscent of the Ken Russell pics that you mentioned, then this is something that would be right up my alley. I’ve mentioned before on various different websites how much of a fan I am of his work. I really wasn’t interested in this film at all, but now I am. If the film takes on the style that I now think it will, it could be one that I fall for as well. Reading this mini-review just peaked my interest. This is one I will be adding to my radar.

  4. Lazarus, I think the former took place when the film was over, while the latter took place during, as Jeff said, a high-emotion scene in the second act. Big difference, no?

  5. “Here’s the problem, though: they weren’t watching it in a “literal theatre.”"

    Weren’t they? Where was it screened, a zoo?

    I’m glad to hear Jeff liked this though. Joe Wright has been kind of building up to something amazing and this sounds like he might have gotten close to finally reaching his potential. He’s like a Sam Mendes that actually wants to do something original and unique.

  6. Of Tolstoy’s 2 major epics, this remains my favorite Anne and I’ve read it 3-4 times. I’m intrigued by it. KK has been doing great work since she stopped being crammed down our throats as a movie star. I don’t feel her as Anna, who I’ve always pictured as a more voluptuous body type, but that’s just me.

    So it’s ok for Wells to cover his face and Moan when he can’t stand a film but others can’t voice how they feel? Just checking.

  7. Moaning is more subtle than laughing. I don’t moan loudly when I’m watching a bad film. It’s mostly an internal thing.

  8. I was happily reading along with one ear on MSNBC’s coverage of Joe Biden’s speech when you had to stop. Just wondered why you are being kicked out? Is there not some place there where media people can complete a story?

  9. “Those snide little bitches who chuckled during this afternoon’s screening needed to be hauled out by the collar and slapped around.”

    “God, you sound like such a conservative fuddy-dud! ”

    The same person made both of those statements.

    EYES FORWARD, MAGGOTS!!

  10. “Weren’t they? Where was it screened, a zoo?”

    A movie auditoriuuuuuuuuuuuuuum. Good game of “gotcha” but come on, though, you know damn well what I meant (at least I hope so).

    Cinema isn’t a play, and plays aren’t cinema. How Wells ever got “conservative fuddy-duddy” out of the fact that I prefer my films to visually take advantage of the things that make them a distinct and unique art form from “theatre,” I’ll never fucking know. Hey, I liked Carnage last year, too, Jeff — but that’s only because I wasn’t in any position to see it on Broadway (or wherever the hell it was playing before it hit multiplexes). Let’s be honest here — it was kind of an ill-fitted film for the big screen.

    “I don’t moan loudly when I’m watching a bad film. It’s mostly an internal thing.”

    No, moaning is mostly an AUDIBLE thing. This is why Jett said he could hear you carrying on in this week’s Oscar Poker. For the barrage of petty complaints you launch into about others, you actually sound like you would be sort of difficult to watch a movie next to.

  11. Karenina might be great. I haven’t seen it. But isn’t the weakness with British cinema its high-end films perceive cinema as an extension of theater and/or literature? Even something like THe King’s Speech feels like it was a book or a play.

  12. @K. Bowen:

    Unfortunately so. Even British genre movies like ‘Attack The Block’ end up looking like something shot for TV. You can’t blame directors like Ridley Scott, who are interested in the visual possibilities of cinema, for jumping ship ASAP to the states.

  13. I can’t wait to see this. It’s one of my favorite books, and no version I’ve seen thus far has been anything but straight-up soap-opera-disguised-as-epic. Might as well see how it plays out in a theatrical setting. This review is making me feel hopeful.

  14. Good for Joe Wright. The elephant in the room however must be Aaron Johnson’s getup. Anna’s gonna put everything at risk for a bartender at a 1982 gay club? Sasha, please address.

  15. People that are down on this purely because of the experimentation are conservative pansies who would rather watch Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 20 times than watch The Shining once. Traditional epics and literary adaptations have been DONE TO DEATH. Cinema is capable of greater than bog-standard BBC costume dramas. Better to innovate and get backlash from crabby dullards than produce a dry lump and win a gazillion Oscars. I haven’t seen Pride and Prejudice or Atonement, but Hanna was DYNAMIC, so I have a little faith in Wright. God, did people expect the director of Hanna to make a traditional Anna Karenina?

  16. So setting a movie in a theatre setting counts as “experimental” these days? That’s interesting. To me, it just seems a little bit lazy (although, whatever, I haven’t seen it yet).

    Hanna seemed fairly rote and by-the-numbers to me. Not sure why anyone would cite that as a reason to actually be excited about Wright’s future cinematic endeavors. But to each their own, of course…

  17. Anyone who would find LAWRENCE OF ARABIA boring should find another form of diversion (starting with wanking and moving on down the list), because they sure have no clue
    about moviemaking.

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