Director Joe Wright appears to have taken Shakespeare’s quote from As You Like It quite literally: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
In his new film, an audacious new presentation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, director Wright stages most of his scenes inside a decaying, old theatre with just the occasional moment or two expanded to exterior shots.
The film begins in an old gas lit theatre, letting us know that what we are about to see will truly be a performance. We’re informed by a title that we’re in Imperial Russia in the year 1874. The curtains open. The show begins.
The players then use all areas of the theatre to tell their story. Characters walk backstage when leaving a ballroom scene and continue their conversation behind flat sets, tabs rise and fall creating instant scene changes, and perhaps the most inventive of all, a day at the races has the horses literally racing across the stage entering from stage right and exiting stage left.
Because of the imagination used to create these beautiful set designs, shot with eye-catching cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, you become less concerned with what is happening and more interested in how the moment is being presented. When Jude Law as Alexi Karenin rips a letter to shreds, he throws the pieces in the air which then become mixed with falling snow that proceeds to saturate the scene. It’s a moment of cinematic majesty that becomes so visually gorgeous you could practically take a frame from the film, any frame from any scene, and hang it on your wall to admire.
Keira Knightly plays Anna and she continues to improve with every film. The scenes she shares with her husband, Jude Law, have the right amount of conflict to make you feel somewhat involved, but other players are less successful, particularly Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky who doesn’t stand a chance. Johnson has already proved himself in films such as the lead in Kick-Ass and a tremendous performance as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, but here he is in competition with the lush designs of everything around him and no matter how hard he may try to make an impression, the lush designs always win.
Making Anna Karenina so visually pleasing and using the theatre as a means of telling its story is an interesting approach, and there are undeniable times of sheer, imaginative beauty, but the end result is a passionless exercise in moviemaking where style wins over substance and you’re left uninvolved wishing Wright had concentrated more on story-telling and less on visual flourishes.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 130 minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)