Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been much-adapted for the screen over the years, but director Joe Wright’s latest version stands out from the rest for one reason. The story is the same as the others, but its approach is very different: instead of recreating 19th century Russia, Wright sets the film primarily in a giant theatre-space, a grand series of interconnected, archaic halls representing the artifice of Russian aristocratic society. Private moments take place before the eyes of a gossiping audience, paper snow falls indoors before a fake backdrop of Moscow, model trains turn to the real thing in a single jump cut, and the central conceit is that only people living honest, pure lives (like Domhnall Gleeson’s Levin) can escape through giant stage doors into the real world. Those trapped in the vortex of a claustrophobic public life have to remain on display before spectators, within rooms that change from one minute to the next.
There is one scene in particular that stands out. Gluttonous Prince Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) greets Levin at his office space – a warehouse full of labourers stamping papers in hypnotic rhythm – before agreeing to dine with him later. Levin exits. The office then begins shifting before our eyes from a drab office into a gleaming St. Petersburg restaurant, while the office workers shed their dull garb to become colourfully-dressed waiters and musicians. Levin again enters the room – now a decadent eatery – and finds Oblonsky waiting calmly in the midst of all the mayhem, eating at a table set for two. All that happens in a single take.
No-one can pretend Anna Karenina is a perfect film. Tolstoy‘s story has been told with greater feeling before, in adaptations that perhaps invested more in the human side of the tale. The story here acts as backdrop to the radical theatre concept, rather than the other way around, and sometimes it feels like the whole bizarre venture is an excuse for Joe Wright to show off his (unparalleled in British cinema) visual style. But Anna Karenina’s method of execution, and its lofty ambitions, should be actively celebrated.
There was a time when boldness and innovation was commonplace, even fashionable in the movies. Hollywood in the 1970s was such a time, a period that saw talented filmmakers basically run amok, their imagination going wild on mainstream productions. The studios threw money at big-name directors – among them Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Michael Cimino – to essentially do whatever they liked. They embarked on bigger and increasingly risky filmmaking adventures, until a few ill-fated projects saw them lose much of their power. Spielberg made 1941, Scorsese made New York, New York, Friedkin made Sorcerer, Cimino made Heaven’s Gate, they all were financial (and mostly critical) failures and a more cautious studio system was the result.
Money isn’t thrown so willingly at ambitious projects anymore, whether they’re ambitious stylistically like Anna Karenina, or ambitious narratively like the upcoming Cloud Atlas, a mind-bending blockbuster which had to be financed independently. The box office failures of Spielberg and co. at the end of their ‘70s jaunt suggest there isn’t much of an audience for ambitious cinema. And the critical reactions to those projects, as well as to Anna Karenina (reviews have been mixed, and some poor), perhaps implies cinema should just stick to the guidelines.
But surely ambitious failures are infinitely more interesting than mediocre pictures that play it safe? Surely films that strive for big things should be embraced, even if the pieces themselves aren’t wholly successful? Movies that aim for terrific heights are rarely masterpieces because the art form has its limits, and while Heaven’s Gate, New York, New York and 1941 are all ultimately lacking in the story department, they’re at least grand follies. We’ll never see their kind again; the very fact they exist seems incredible.
Films that stand out, that break barriers, that seek to bring something unique to the audience take a great deal of courage from a filmmaker. Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is that kind of film. We may not see another like it, and doesn’t that make it something to cherish? In this lazy climate, vampire movies and found footage horrors are churned out on a weekly basis. Nothing special. In a movie world so taken with the cult of conformity, pictures with ambition – pictures with balls – deserve attention from everyone.
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