Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Love in Excess: Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley stars in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina

If you’d asked me last year which contemporary director I’d most like to see adapt Anna Karenina, I would have named Joe Wright. David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies and directed the majestic BBC miniseries of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, would have been a close second. Yates has a magical feel for the epic scope of Victorian fiction – a quality he excavates out of J.K. Rowling’s already Dickensian material – and perhaps more than any other recent director he has succeeded in transmuting the addictive pacing of the capacious novel form to the seriality of television and the film series, capturing the velocity of the novels rather than trying to outdo them. But it’s Wright’s films that distill and remediate the pleasure that novel reading can give us. In Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), the experience of reading as both subject and visual motif suffuses the movies with a gently expressive awareness of the translation from page to screen.

Wright’s Pride and Prejudice opens on a pastoral image of Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) walking through a sunny meadow absorbed in the novel that lies open in her hands; as she gets closer to her home, she reaches the final page, closes the book, and enters the yard. The camera takes us past an open door that reveals a young woman at a piano framed by successive doorways like a Vermeer painting. Then it glides through the rooms that bustle with the motion of the other Bennett sisters, finally returning outside where Lizzie looks on at her parents through a window as her mother (Brenda Blethlyn) utters the first line of dialogue in the novel (one that, if you love the book, is already echoing through your head): “My dear Mr. Bennett, have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?” It’s an ingenious meta-cinematic opening that suggests a delicate transition between Austen’s novel and Wright’s film, with the novel ending just as the movie begins, the open book echoed in the open door inviting us into the film, and Lizzie finally stationed, like the viewer, as a voyeur at the window of this house, listening on the threshold as the plot begins to unfold.  

Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Unlike so many adaptations of Jane Austen that mistake Austen’s comedy for melodrama (as did the gauzy 2009 BBC miniseries of Emma starring Romola Garai) or mistake her irony for glib sarcasm (Douglas McGrath’s 1996 Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow or Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park), Wright champions the material with a lyrical comic realism. (Although he loses track of the style towards the end and falls under the unfortunate sway of melodrama, the movie’s achievements outweigh its third act glitches.) Atonement, Wright’s masterpiece, transposes to the screen Ian MacEwan’s World War II novel that opens on an English country estate the summer of 1935, when a precocious young girl (Briony, played by Saoirse Ronan) oversees something she doesn’t understand – an interaction between her older sister (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son (James McAvoy). After she walks in on the two of them making love, her confused anger leads her to accuse McAvoy of a crime he didn’t commit, an action that leads to irreparable consequences that intersect with the history of the Second World War. McEwan brilliantly uses this conceit to explore the nature of perception and interpretation, a theme that recapitulates the history of the novel from Samuel Richardson to Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. In his movie, Wright transposes this hyper-literary content into an examination of how film art inextricably combines perception with sensation. Opening with the image of young Briony at her typewriter coming to the end of a play she is writing – we see the sheet of paper as she types the words “The End” – Wright conveys once again how film takes over where literature ends. But here, the sensuality of the film medium comes to express Briony’s sexual awakening and the erotic reality she oversees but that her juvenile play cannot express. Wright seems to unmask MacEwan’s material, to both fulfill it and to turn it inside out. Atonement is one of those rare movie adaptations of great novels that actually transcend the work it is based on.

Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) is, in fact, a mess. But it’s the kind of mess probably only Wright could make – he takes the meta-concept to disastrously unrestrained limits. Tolstoy’s 1877 novel is about the Russian aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of the prominent statesman Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who falls in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young cavalry officer. Anna and Vronsky are both deepened by their feelings for each other, but in leaving her husband for her lover Anna violates the Russian Orthodox social codes of nineteenth century Russia and becomes an outcast – in the novel’s famous ending, she throws herself under a train. Wright’s concept is that Russian high society was like a theater, an idea he takes literally by using an empty theater as the set for the film, with the actors at times like ballet dancers, other times like the characters of an opera, interacting in a style that reduces Tolstoy’s realism – the history, the politics, the complex web of social interactions and conventions through which people move as they talk, dine, attend the opera and fall in love – to meta-theatrical notation.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Alicia Vikander
Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay, gamely incorporates in to the film a swirl of other characters from the novel – most prominently Anna’s jocular pleasure-seeking brother Oblonsky (Matthew McFayden, Pride and Prejudice, The Way We Live Now), husband of Princess Dolly (Kelly Macdonald); and the ascetic, philosophical landowner and agricultural reformer Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), who courts and marries Dolly’s younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). But the effort to convey the expansiveness of Tolstoy’s social world gets bogged down in the theatricalism of the style, which doesn’t give the various shadings of social and psychological experience – say, the triangle made by Anna, Dolly and Kitty – enough room to breathe. The movie is so saturated in spectacle that, oddly, it becomes cerebral. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out why one scene is set backstage in the theater among the girders and scaffolding, and another in the audience, and another still on a lavishly designed set, and another on an empty stage.

The concept was probably doomed from the start, but it’s not an unintelligent film, or an unfeeling one. There’s a moment when an image of the steam circuit of the Moscow-St. Petersburg train gives over to the sensuous paper and ink of Anna’s book, the camera gliding over the confusion of Russian characters before the film cuts to Knightley's face, still flushed from the ballroom (she holds a penknife to her cheeks just to cool them) – it caught up some of that febrile quality I remember from the scene as Tolstoy wrote it. But Wright’s signature image of books and text is encrypted by the phony operatic pretenses of the movie’s style. The train becomes a toy train. A scene of lovemaking fades into a prescription for morphine and then flashes back to the steam circuit of the train. Montages of Knightley and Taylor-Johnson’s naked bodies entwined like dancers’, as inescapably silly and self-serious as Alain Resnais’ opening images of bodies in Hiroshima Mon Amour, flash against the screen. The Russian aristocracy may have lived for style, but in Wright’s movie, style becomes its own object, indolent and over-indulged. By reading Tolstoy’s drama as meta-drama, he winds up with melodrama.

Ironically, in embracing the melodrama Tolstoy sought to expunge from his novel, Wright builds his movie around the archaic romance plot Tolstoy reconceived for modern realism – one of his great achievements – without realizing that it’s the realist conventions that make the love story truly original. What he winds up with is Anna Karenina as the woozy transcendent romance many people want it to be, rather than Anna Karenina as the capacious realist novel of social mores that it is. (As for romance, Michael Hoffman’s radiant picture about Tolstoy’s last days, The Last Station, has far more to say about the novel’s questions of love and appetite, body and soul, than this adaptation.) In gearing up for spectacle and decadence instead of realism, Wright may have been trying to make a big movie, but he’s only succeeded in making a very small one.  

A scene from Anna Karenina (2012)
If you can wade through the molasses-thick style to find them, Anna Karenina is filled with glorious bits of movie acting, and they suggest the movie that Wright didn’t make, the one that would have embraced the materials he had at his disposal instead of trying to triumph over them. As Anna, Keira Knightley is astonishing. It’s a seething, effervescent performance; the whole movie is in her face, and you’re always catching up to her reactions. Knightley has emerged in the last few years as one of the most exciting young film actresses working today. She was only 18 when she made Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl ten years ago, and she had a dewy adolescent prettiness still clinging to her. Now, in performances like this one or her even more daring turn as Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenberg’s 2011 A Dangerous Method, her matured beauty is stalked by a hungry sensuality. She has the unaffected glamor of the stars of old Hollywood (surely not even a young Audrey Hepburn was more gorgeous than Knightley is in Anna Karenina) and the kind of physique and inventive physicality that makes period costumes sing, but her acting style has a vivid contemporary pulse. She could have played the kinds of roles Michelle Pfeiffer took in the 80’s, like her Mme. de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears’ unabashedly modern take on the period piece; and like the British New Wave actresses like Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith, her performances can blend the technical precision of the British classical style with the psychological intimacy of the American Method.

Knightley is eloquent playing romantic heroines because her acting process is one of constant self-discovery. (It’s also what made her so spellbinding to watch in Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic comedy, where her sense of discovery expressed the ethic of the material – you could see her both fighting her way into the role and surprising herself by what she could bring to the surface.) As Anna, a woman as impulsive as she is consummately elegant,she shows five different expressions flash across her face before she chooses the words she is going to say. Knightley thrives in these roles where the cerebral and the erotic are at cross-purposes, where intellect and wit meet sexual surrender, because she’s an actress whose own intelligence and intuition spar on screen. Her performance in Anna Karenina is so powerful that it commands around her the movie that isn’t there.  

Unfortunately, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a wash as Count Vronsky. Taylor-Johnson is a plastic figurine, as incapable of exciting desire as he is of playing it. You can’t imagine why Anna would risk her life for this boyish doodle. Knightley might as well be playing her scenes with an off-screen prompter – she’s reacting to an invisible performance. On the other hand, it’s in her scenes opposite Jude Law’s Karenin that the movie is at its most exciting and its most whole. Law doesn’t just play Karenin’s clipped repression – he can simultaneously show us what this man has to hide: he’s like a glass sculpture with a tempest rattling inside. His line readings are mesmerizing – he gives Karenin a brittle murmur, oddly punctuated after every fourth word or so as though he is pausing to authenticate the certainty of each utterance. Law’s Karenin is a man who is only capable of speaking the words he is certain of; even his questions come across as statements. Yet Law suggests the unexplored inner life of a man whose statements are shaded by the questions he doesn’t know how to ask. It’s a subtle, affecting performance.

Jude Law and Keira Knightley
Still, Wright’s romance with sensory excess threatens to upstage even the best acting in the film. He shoots Knightley from above in a scene when Anna, feverish and close to death after giving birth, lies in bed with her dark curls splayed out around her head like the mane of one of Edvard Munch’s demonic women. The image, which is so deliberately stylized it’s actually mannered, is not nearly as interesting as Knightley’s performance in that scene, which gets at the expressionistic reaches the image is supposed to convey. Knightley’s performance doesn’t need to be underlined. Nor does Matthew McFayden need a dancing barber to shave his beard in a swashbuckler’s stroke – this is actually the opening scene of the movie – to create around Oblonsky’s character the buoyancy that the actor himself, in a nimble comic performance reminiscent of Kenneth Branaugh’s best work, achieves. And God knows Jude Law doesn’t need to sit looking out to the audience on an empty stage like Hamlet about to deliver his famous soliloquy for us to understand that Karenin is tormented by the news that Anna is pregnant with her lover’s child. It makes you focus on the stage lights instead of on Law’s performance and the roiling, molten emotion he can convey buried deep in the chest of the most unemotional of characters. The meta-theater is not just obtrusive; it’s also often dramatically redundant.

The scenes of the countryside where Levin’s cottage stands alone in vast fields of hay are gorgeously shot (by Seamus McGarvey, who also photographed Atonement), but the interiors, confusingly interposed with stage sets, have a cramped, hermetic quality, while the images of street crowds and the ballroom scenes are either icily frozen or a chaos of swirling color. (I think the ballroom scene in which Kitty realizes she has lost Vronsky to Anna – Wright stages this moment on the dance floor – is supposed to have the terrifying heat of the Tarantella Nora performs in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but it’s so incoherently edited I could hardly follow the images.) One of the affectations of the film is to stage crowd scenes in tableaux, with only Anna in motion. (She’s a social pariah, in case you didn’t get it.) These scenes are lit to resemble the paintings of Sargent or Eakins, but those artists aspired to convey all the vibrancy of motion, whether physical or psychological. The effect the movie gets is counter-intuitive: it’s less like portraiture than still life, with the actors’ faces, waxy and opaque, like so many pears and oranges. The inspired Jacqueline Durran is responsible for the costumes, as she was for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, and though Knightley’s dresses are extraordinary creations, they insist, like the overly stylized cinematography, on expressing too much, and so they come across as surfeit, cacophonous pageantry. They are the costumes you’d want if you were staging Anna Karenina without actors to fill them: those dresses are their own performance.

Ian MacEwan closed his novel Atonement with an epilogue narrated by the elder Briony that reveals that the novel we are reading is one that she has written, her last attempt to redeem herself from the past before she loses her memory to dementia. MacEwan’s meta-literary conceit both wittily and elegiacally turns a novel already obsessed with the ways in which lives take on the substance of literature into a kind of postmodern Möbius strip. Wright conserves the power of MacEwan’s ending by deploying his own bit of comparable movie magic for his closing scene: Vanessa Redgrave plays the elder Briony in a present day television interview about her recently published novel in the most riveting five minute performance I’ve ever seen in a movie. MacEwan’s epilogue is thirty-or-so pages and it follows Briony through doctors’ appointments, the archives of the British Library and a birthday party, but there’s not a single emotional note in that entire section that Redgrave fails to compress into her scene. In an ending that is about the way art allows us to come to terms with senseless death precisely because it refuses to anaesthetize us against it, Redgrave’s performance is a remarkable gift, a return on our faith both in the magic of fiction and the magic of film. That’s the kind of sublimely understated meta-cinema I cherish in Wright. Anna Karenina may be a gifted director’s failure, one that suggests the faint outline of the movie Wright might have made imprinted within it. But that doesn’t make it sting any less.
Amanda Shubert is a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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