Day 15 - Anna Karenina
I’ll admit, I haven’t read the book. From what I gather (from the people sitting behind me in the cinema), this was a particularly stylised interpretation. If this is to believed, then I am immensely glad it was this particular version that I watched, because it was most definitely the stylisation that I enjoyed most about the film.
Not that the story was in any way weak. It was exactly what I expected, up to and including the inevitable potential to be pretentious. But this is something that I believe the film circumvented rather nicely.
The depth both of character and political commentary was all there, but the symbolism of the upper class society being set and performed in the style of a theatre was obvious and accessible enough for any form of viewer to get on board with, so the film doesn’t alienate in favour of bolstering its own inflated sense of self-worth. This is something that has always aggravated me about Stoppard’s writing, and though it jarred in Parade’s End, it thrives here. This, I believe, is because often the determined use of visual and directorial subtext to put forward some message leaves a stilted, convoluted core - in other words, it never quite aligns with the plot and characters, restricting them and leaving an awkward mess in it’s wake.
But entirely to the contrary, it is the driving force of Anna Karenina, establishing a flowing motion, particularly in the opening scenes, that entirely sweeps you away in its slipstream. That is what makes the film so successful; it’s inclusive intellectualism, rather than exclusive. It’s impossible to feel left behind when such efforts are taken to ensure you are embraced and carried along from the start. It calms down after a while into a somewhat more naturalistic affair, but the opening gambit, which establishes the well-oiled-machine that is the aristocratic Imperial Russian society through a vast cast of extras and an ever roaming camera, as scenes are transitioned through slick, theatre-style set changes. The whole thing has a balletic quality to it, which leads neatly onto it’s next great success, the aesthetics.
In every possible way, the film is beautiful. The costumes are, of course, breathtaking, but this was inevitable. Beyond that, every set and every shot, interior or exterior, uses light, colour and angling to the very best of advantages. It’s an incredibly sensory experience; nothing is explicit, but the use of pacing and sound makes both violence and sex feel as much. All of this could be demonstrated through two of the films strongest scenes; the races, and the dance. In the latter, choreography and increasingly fast-paced application of intercut rotating shots is so dizzying I felt as though I might be lulled into a trance. Or, more fittingly, I felt as though I was there, feeling the frenzied emotions of the characters in this pivotal scene.
It also boasts brilliant performances all around. This is one of those films in which everyone is someone, so if you’re a fan of British film and television it’s filled with unexpected delights. Matthew Macfadyen - who can often be understated to the point of insomnia - is perhaps the most engaging he has ever been, and steals almost every scene he’s in. Both Michelle Dockery and Ruth Wilson are, as always, so hypnotising in their relatively small roles that I’d often wish the cameras would follow them home instead, just so that I could get some sense of what’s going on in their glorious heads. The same goes for Holliday Grainger in her one, brief appearance. In terms of the leads, Aaron Johnson continues to exceed my expectations. Perhaps it’s time I raised them, because every time I see him I seem to forget how much he impressed me the last time. It’s a small performance from Jude Law, which could easily have been swamped by the passion of Knightley and Johnson, but the quiet perseverance of the portrayal, never commanding your attention but somehow achieving it anyway, meant that by the end of the film he was, of course, the character I had the most sympathy with. This might be something to do with the fact that the actual relationship between Anna and her lover, of which we only see brief glimpses of quite a large period of time, is never particularly persuasive. I have heard it said that the sympathy lying more with the husband than the lover is something of a departure from the source material, but it doesn’t distract from the impressiveness of Jude Law’s performance.
From Knightley, we see a strange cross-breed of several of the characters she’s played before. This is something she can hardly be blamed for; she’s become something of a go-to-girl for tricky period roles. And say what you will, but I can’t imagine a better choice for the role. She’s easy to buy as the woman with the elegant charm that no one can help but be captivated by, even when presented with younger, more attainable options, as the narrative dictates. This description isn’t so very far off the effect she seems to have on casting directors. But in all seriousness, I’ve always thought of her as someone you could reliably trust to give a solid performance in any role, but this is perhaps her strongest yet. Her Anna is wilder, more frustrating than her Elizabeth or her Cecilia or her Georgiana, but she’ll drive you crazy in one scene and break your heart in the next, something I’m not sure another actress would have done. You can empathise with the infatuation of both men; hating and loving her almost synonymously, because you’ll feel the same way.
Whether any of this is a credit to the film makers or merely the source material, I’m not in a position to determine, but it works splendidly well.