The enemies of Joe Wright‘s Anna Karenina (Focus Features, 11.16) just can’t seem to open up and let it carry them off. They can’t or won’t submit to the swirl and the thrill. It gets heavy and dirge-like toward the end, okay, but the first 60% to 70%? Forget about it. It’s so “theatrical” in its concept that it pole-vaults over that and becomes a kind of cinematic ecstasy ride. Once you’ve decided to not fight this film, it’s all about lying back in a cushioned, adjustable, red-velvet orchestra seat and just letting it pour over you.
Free popcorn and drink ticket handed out at last night’s Anna Karenina premiere.
Cinematic and choreographic audacity and production-designed and costumes and sets and backdrops all jiggered and fitted together just so and orchestrated like music and ballet…a ballet with words, all of it cascading and dancing and brimming over and making those who can submit to it feel the kind of delight that hasn’t come along since the glory days of the madness of Ken Russell, only more so.
The dissers and the shruggers complain that Anna Karenina is all dazzling genius style and that they can’t get into the story with so much stagey ingenuity going on. Let me explain something. If it hadn’t been for the super-brilliant, live-performance-at the-Winter Garden-theatre arranging of Anna Karenina I wouldn’t have seen it four times so far. The style doesn’t defeat the material — it saves the film from feeling like just another re-mounting of a classic historical melodrama.
Wright’s decision to abandon traditional historical realism and go the way he did was prompted by financial restriction. He realized he couldn’t do a traditional piece set in 1870s Russia for $30 million (which is what Keira Knightley has told me it cost), or at least not one that would add up or make any kind of difference for modern audiences, so he decided on the all-happening-in-a-theatre approach. He didn’t get the money he wanted so he resorted to his imagination.
Is this not a metaphor for what many filmmakers are often faced with? And the best solution possible? Not having enough of a budget always sparks creativity, and for the better. If Wright had been given $60 or $75 or $100 million, Anna Karenina wouldn’t have been as good, I swear.
Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir calls Wright’s scheme a “crazy idea,” but says “it works maybe 70% of the time [and] when it does it’s both daring and brilliant. It largely frees Wright from staging laborious outdoor location shoots — although there are several occasions when the movie breaks the frame into the ‘real world’ outside the demimonde of Moscow and St. Petersburg society — and entirely frees him from distracting questions of realism or period accuracy.
“[This] a furiously ambitious literary adaptation, the best of Wright and Knightley’s careers, that tries to make us feel the intense sexuality and terror and grief of a classic novel, and to force us to face its questions about love and marriage and agree that we still can’t answer them.”