It’s that time of year when all the awesome movies hit the big screen. 🙂 Get ready!
First off – I think Keira Knightley is absolutely stunning in everything. I know she’s a bit of a polarizing figure in the world of film… but I am such a fan. And Joe Wright & Keira Knightley together are brilliant. (Aaron Taylor-Johnson is does a better job than I was expecting… but seriously – the role should have gone to James McAvoy.)
And that might be part of the problem. I was coming in to Anna Karenina with the sky-high expectations of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. And on a certain level, Anna Karenina totally lived up to those expectations. It’s dazzling, bold and inventive, and that’s saying something for a story that nearly everyone knows starts with a doomed love affair and ends with a train. It’s so classic it’s nearly become a cliche, a story of society and sex, of hypocrisy and horror when someone steps outside of the accepted norms.
It’s theater of the most arch kind.
And that’s where most of the movie takes place – in a theater, as though we’re watching these characters on stage rather than on screen, leaving aside the sumptuous settings of a failing Russia and allowing us to simply observe the characters and their individual fates.
The film has moments so perfect that they rank up there as some of the best onscreen moments of the year. And in those moments – I completely saw what Joe Wright was trying to do in telling the story this way. He’s inviting us into the production of it all, and you don’t want to miss a single second. The closest movie I’ve seen to this one was De-Lovely – which to this day is still one of my favorite films – where character walk back and forth from stage to real world without missing a beat, as though we’re finally able to step through a play and into the “real” world the characters inhabit.
Karenin and Anna are part of a fading hierarchy, the wealthy couple in government that everyone watches. You get the sense that they feel as though their life is lived on a stage for all the world to see.
And then comes Count Vronsky, the one upsets their perfect world. All hell breaks loose around the Karenins. For Vronsky and Anna, though – it’s as if everything in the world has frozen, and they’re coming to life for the first time. This is where the theatricality of this specific version fits in so well. There’s an early scene with when they dance beautifully through the theater as everyone else lives in still life around them.
And – in what I think is the movie’s most poignant moment – Anna admits the affair to Karenin as they’re getting ready to sleep. His eyes grow cold, and you see a man fighting between rage and his steadfast commitment to keep his public persona intact. But in a real life/theater blending moment – he walks through a door and onto the theater’s stage. Anna follows, and in a dark theater, surrounded by glaring lights, Karenin sits, staring vacantly out.
He’s a man alone, a man who knows he’s lost the one thing he’s treasured. He knows he’ll be held up for ridicule and censure. He’s become a broken man in a heartbeat. But instead of ripping into Anna, he just looks back at her quietly.
Tell me what I did to deserve this.
I’ve always thought this story was all the more powerful if you believe that at one point, Anna loved Karenin. She doesn’t respond to his question, and for a fleeting instant – you believe that she did once love the man sitting in front of her.
A Crumbling Love
How does a love strong enough to press its way into forever find itself chipped away until it’s a shell of itself? How is it that someone could vow for always to someone else and somehow find themselves all these years later full of indifference at best, utter disdain at worst? It’s a common story, and yet somehow it always feels so fresh and raw with every retelling. They were in love, and then they were not. It’s such a sad sort of death.
And the train.
The train gets rendered out in this bizarrely artificial way, and yet it’s that artificiality that gives it such power. We’ve seen a thousand versions of car crashes and explosions in every movie. And I think somehow, I’ve managed to put up a wall inside my heart when I watch those moments. It’s only fake. Everything’s fine. But somehow, the fake train slipped through my filter, and for a brief second, theater and reality blended and Anna Karenina’s death got through.
It was blinding. And it accomplished exactly what it was trying to do. It made her death seem inevitable and pointless and brutal and broken.
I’ll be honest. It’s not a perfect film, not by a long shot. I think Pride and Prejudice and Atonement were definitely stronger films from Wright. In the few brief moments we spend with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen on screen – it was all I could do to not break out my blu-ray and immerse myself right back into the world of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.
But Joe Wright has done what few would dare to do – he’s turned a story upside down and nearly inside out. He’s stripped it of it’s rich and elegant trappings and left us staring on stage at characters who’ve been destroyed by their own making. We don’t have the choice to look away. And so we live through them, all the way to death.
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