by Dan Fields
First published November 23, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Double Icing On Half A Cake
Joe Wright established himself practically overnight as a strong force in period drama based on popular books. He wowed with the relentlessly dour Atonement and then soared with a superb riff on Pride and Prejudice. Couple these efforts with the spunky, bizarro thriller Hanna and you should have no trouble seeing that Wright is a filmmaker both exuberant and offbeat.
His Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s monumentally acclaimed novel, is a parade of elegant design and intricate staging. It is not difficult to guess which Academy Award nominations its makers have in mind. By enclosing the cultural volatility of 19th-century cosmopolitan Russia in an ever-shifting magic lantern, those responsible get to show off and share some cutting insights on the artifice and deception required to sustain imperial high society.
Wright sets the epic tragedy of Anna, a fallen woman if ever there was one, almost entirely within a spacious theatre hall, with the main action unfolding on an impossibly marvelous series of collapsing and interlocking sets. The wings and backstage area become private places of intrigue and the catwalks above serve as sordid back alleys. There are trains and horse races and all the bustle of Moscow and St. Petersburg contained behind a single curtain. The complexity and perpetual motion of this living stage is nothing short of stunning.
The hard truth, impossible to dodge, is that this is not Tolstoy’s world. It is more like Hugo Cabret’s world, and from time to time it even flirts perilously with becoming Baz Luhrmann’s world. Tom Stoppard’s script, though consistently bright and entertaining, abridges the story painfully to fit the stylish construct. Anna Karenina may be the title character, but she need not be the sole focus of the plot. The supporting figures in her life lend important dramatic context to her abasement. Continue reading