review of “ANNA KARENINA”, directed by Joe Wright

I saw “Anna Karenina” last night with a Q&A by the director Joe Wright and D.P. Seamus McGarvey. It’s a directorial and below the line tour de force. That’s not to say that the acting isn’t good to excellent – it is. But the concept (clearly a lemonade out of lemons budgetary decision) involves creating the artifice of the action mostly happening in a theatre. The movie is intensely choreographed, both literally in the dances (and one sex scene is staged as a kind of dance) and in the actors every day – yet stylized – movements, all in relation to an often moving camera. For example, scenes shift locations by moving a few feet and changing a jacket. A simple action used to transform space, which is very much a theatre convention. Thus, the way the action has been staged / filmed captures much of the magic inherent in both mediums. The effect is often surreal and disorienting, then the frame refocuses into more standard film realism and we’re brought back into the comfort of “reality”.

Wright has created an odd amalgam of Brecht and Russian Romanticism as we get pulled out and sucked back in continuously, in its own kind of dance (kudos to the editing). I think if you have a great love of the theatre, you will be fascinated and will overall quite like the film, but if you don’t, then then there’s a greater chance you will be feeling a bit cold and dissatisfied by this film. I quite liked it myself.

But this methodology works because it’s more than a clever trick to avoid the expense of shooting on location in Russia. It thematically underlines the artificiality of the rules the aristocracy lived by and provides enormous contrast to the literal breath of fresh air for the Leven major subplot which is filmed all on location, often in the fields. (The Leven story is essentially Tolstoy’s fictionalized autobiography.)

The breaking of the 4th wall may have given me a different emotional experience than one where I would have been fully enveloped in a suspension of disbelief, but it is a valid emotional experience nonetheless. It takes a bit more work on one as an audience member, but is very rewarding in a rather unique way.

As I have said nothing of the script, I should note that Tom Stoppard had done an excellent adaptation of a rather long novel with a parade of characters with long, unfamiliar names with both a minimum of confusion and a great deal of emotional impact. The writing effectively captures the parameters of the story, the feel of Imperial Russia and the spirit of Tolstoy. Without the grounding of the script and what it gives the actors to work with, this dance of real and artificial that Wright and his team have some impressively created never would have been possible.

Again the acting is quite fine, from leads to minor characters. The score (much of it composed to the script, before filming thus making all of that choreography possible) and all of the technical elements are stunning, but a special mention must go to the sound design which constantly created an impact especially in scenes staged in the “theatre” (p.s. not a real theatre but a theatre facsimile constructed on a sound stage in England which is just one more layer of the artificial here…). No, I take that back, the sound of the scythe cutting wheat was as important as any in the drawing rooms of the aristocracy.