Saturday, March 16, 2013

Joe Wright's Anna Karenina: The Train Wreck of Literary Adaptations

Various characters from Anna Karenina dancing

Previously, I defended the experimental methods used by director Joe Wright in the film The Soloist (2009), which I believe work well to show the confusing, perturbed and overwhelming state of someone suffering from schizophrenia. Elements of sound and visuals combined to illustrate the mental stress of the movie's protagonist, which I found overall more convincing that its sanitized Hollywood version in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001).

I decided to write about The Soloist because I believe that it was both misunderstood and underrated by public and critics alike. However, when it comes to Joe Wright's most recent film Anna Karenina (2012) I do not only agree with public and critical displeasure with the film, I also consider it one of the worst movies of the year. Sorry, Joe, I know that experiments sometimes fail, but I will try to show why it does so in Anna Karenina, while at the same time trying to fathom how and why (!) such a talented director can butcher, make mincemeat of one of the best novels ever written.

To begin with, I must confess that Anna Karenina is one of my all-time favorite novels and that I have been generally displeased with the more recent cinematic adaptations I have seen so far. Sophie Marceau was visibly miscast in a dull affair (pun alert) of a film and the fact that Joe Wright was attached to this endeavor of bringing Anna back to the big screen made my heart flutter and beat faster with pleasure, excitement, and anticipation.

And, God, how disappointed was I afterwards! Tolstoy must have repeatedly turned in his grave, while I would have gladly pelted the director (and the entire cast minus Jude Law) with tomatoes. In fact, I think Joe Wright must be given a life-long restraining order on works of classical world literature.

One of the failings is the audaciously pretentious and preposterous, not to mention conceited idea of experimenting with such a beloved novel in such a disrespectful way. The movie starts as a parody and / or musical and I had to double-check if there had not been a practical joke played on me by deliberately switching movies.

At first, it reminded me of Burton's (also disastrous) barber Sweeney Todd (2007). The first minutes of Anna Karenina are completely incomprehensible in tone and action despite me having read the entire novel. It definitely did not help to have Kevin Kline in the movie because it all seemed like an admittedly bad SNL sketch.

Due to my general optimism and also confidence in the director I continued watching this self-parody and kept my fingers crossed and as far as possible from the remote control. I was also led on (in both senses of the word) by the beautiful visuals and the musical score. The costumes were breathtaking, while acting and dialogue were not.

It is not that I am averse to new concepts, namely to have the actors move through a theatrical stage by opening doors into new sets and decors (on its own it was a kind of interesting at times beautiful gimmick). I also did not mind the exposure of artificiality in the scenes of the toy train to (I presume) represent and reveal the artifice and illusion of cinema.

But this is not a Godard film; it is supposed to be a literary adaptation of a famous work! There was very little (if any) emotional connection with any of the characters. Anna Karenina was simply annoying; we see very little of her internal struggle and pain so well exposed in the novel; we do not feel her affection and love for neither Vronsky nor her own child.

In terms of chemistry, the only credible and remotely interesting connection was between Anna and her rigid but somehow still endearing Karenin. Jude Law did his best under the circumstances (and generally Karenin is one of my favorite characters of the novel) but both screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright gave him very little to work with. They assumed that simply showing a close-up of Jude Law's face will convey complex characterization.

And while we are looking at the acting, what drugs were the filmmakers on to use Vronsky as such a parody of Vronsky himself. There is nothing interesting about him; there is no explanation or background story to make us believe (or even accept) the birth of such hot and wild passion between him and Anna. And what may have been intended as erotic (the horrendous picnic scene) is ludicrous and banal.

It is sad that when Vronsky fell off the horse one wishes he would never get up. But since I know the plot and outcome of the novel I must agree with the film critic who notes that you have a serious problem when the viewer is cheering for the train instead of Anna.

All in all, to further this metaphor, this movie is a complete train wreck and disaster. It is uneven in tone because what seemed a parody turned quasi-serious (yet still unintentionally comic) later on. A few cinematic sleight-of-hand tricks do not save the overall pretentious aura of this film. It seems as if the director did not care much about his characters, but rather wanted to showcase his unique and experimental style of film-making. Perhaps had he chosen another source, I might have had a more favorable review here.

But the way it stands, I can only hope for one of two options: Either let Anna Karenina alone and let her sleep nestled under the covers of the written word or come up with a more genuine and heartfelt film adaptation. And keep Joe Wright at bay and do not let him touch similar masterpieces of world literature, not even with a ten-foot pole!


A Mom said...

I had fun reading this nice contents! have a great day!

Vincent said...

Excellent review. After watching The Soloist, tipped off by your, I had expected something soulful from Joe Wright, apart from rooting for him from sheer patriotism.

But soul was precisely what lacks in this adaptation. Not having read the book, nor even having much idea of the plot in advance, I had no expectations, other than its being a lavish treatment. And so it is, but to what end? I admired it as a cinematic tour-de-force, the technical brilliance, the energy of its direction, acting etc: so orchestrated, choreographed, architecturally set-managed, lushly costumed and all the rest. I remember coming out and wondering if it was worth it, because I took out nothing: no afterglow, no being bowled over by excitement, admiration, emotions of any kind. And I just thought, and probably said, "Oh well, you just can't win them all."

And I recall being similarly underwhelmed by Great Expectations, though having no great expectations of that one either, having again not read the book.

Arashmania said...

Thank you very much, A Mom for your comment and interest! I very much appreciate it!

Thanks too, dear Vincent! I am very glad you feel the same way. I agree with you and I did enjoy watching it in terms of its cinematic tour-de-force, but it left me with hardly any "afterglow," especially since I love the source material.

I can imagine what Joe Wright tried to show, the alienation of individuals, social norms of the upper classes, the dishonesty and artificiality of it all. But all of this was already present and exposed in the book and there is nothing wrong to follow a great book!

To my knowledge, I thought it also ironic that "Great Expectations" did not fulfill any great expectations I might have had, as I did love the book for that too.

Finally, Ang Lee did a great directing job by approaching a so-called unfilmable book and turning it into gold and deservedly winning an Oscar for best director. It is not that "Life of Pi" is a great book or a a great movie for that matter, but Ang Lee followed the confines of the book and built on its limitations by inserting beautiful imagery. Most of all, the story was overall compelling, and one could identify with the main character.

And then I shake my head, and feel disappointed and "betrayed" by the end result of "Anna Karenina." What a waste of money and talent! How could it go so wrong when everything seemed in place to create an unforgettable piece of work! That is the most frustrating part of it all!

Anonymous said...


How do you expect to enter in the complexity of a Tolstoy character in a two hours production?

You'll need at least 4 hours to do that; Tolstoy spent a lot of pages in writing about everything the character does, why, and what was he thinking about.

Don't be so harsh. No one is bound to the impossible.

Anonymous said...

Aaah.. even in the book my heart grieved the train she dented when she jumped in front of it...
True that Anna is the type of woman who chose to do what she decide to do and failed to deal with the consequences, but the film just highlighted it so bad that I hate Keira so much, including her botox kissed pout too.
I loved the movie's but I hate AK... I love Levin and Kitty, and Karenin, but AK is just impossible to love.