I was a little surprised to realize that, of the 29 versions of this story listed at the IMDb, I had seen approximately … none of them. Not being much of a reader of classic Russian novels, I don’t even know the story. So I came to this with no preconceptions, except I knew the costumes would be gorgeous.
And they are, probably well over a thousand of them (Oscar for Costume design: Jacqueline Durran). But the first question I asked myself when thinking about seeing this movie was not would the costumes be any good. That sort of went without saying. No, the question was, why would anyone want to make Anna Karenina a 30th time?
The answer soon became abundantly clear. It was because the director, Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, also with Keira Knightley, Atonement, Hanna) felt he could do it in a new way. Now, I love that sort of thing, whether it is a new setting for Shakespeare, a new imagining like Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet, or Tolstoy. I know some people hate it, and if you do, stay away from this. But what we have here is a uniquely cinematic way of telling the old story … which ironically, is also uniquely theatrical.
How can that be? Well, remember the “Dance at the Gym” in West Side Story? One of the best dance numbers ever performed, IMHO. It starts with straight dance, then Maria and Tony spot each other across the gym, and things go blurry except for them. They start toward each other, and the lights dim except for spots on them. The other dancers freeze facing each other. And now we’re in a dark space and a new dance. It has transitioned from something very lively to something quiet and personal, without a cut.
That’s the word: Cut. Movie-making is an entirely unique way of telling a story. Completely different from the written word, obviously, which needs no big budget to create fabulous sets and action. Akin to the stage, in that action is shown and words are spoken, but different in so many ways. In movies there are ways we accept, without even thinking about it, of changing a scene. The most commonly used is the cut. We are in one place, and then in a 24th of a second we’re somewhere else. A few seconds might have passed, a few hours, a few days, or three million years, as in the bone cutting to the spaceship in 2001. There is also the dissolve, the wipe (seldom used anymore) the fade, a few others.
Cinema has its roots on the stage, of course, and early movies were filmed much like stage plays, with the big difference that directors soon came to appreciate that you didn’t need a curtain to change the scene. Or you didn’t need to dim the lights in back while a scene played upstage and stage hands moved furniture and dropped scenery from the fly loft. Nope, you played your scene and pop, a 24th of a second later you were somewhere else. This is the greatest strength of the flickers, I think.
And here Joe Wright largely abandons it in favor of something a lot harder and quite stunning in its effect. Each scene flows into the next as if it was performed on a large stage … which it was, a soundstage at Pinewood. They built a theater there, where most of the action takes place. Characters move from scene to scene by going under the stage, or over it, or staying on it while scenery is cleverly moved to appear around them, or to transform the scene from one room to another. Reality is heightened or stopped entirely, as in one gorgeous scene of dancing, which is what reminded me of the gym in West Side Story. Or someone will be in a room and huge doors will open behind him to … Siberia, or some place with a hell of a lot of snow and ice. A full-sized train, almost invisible beneath a layer of ice, steams into a station that seems to be just off to the side of another set entirely.
This is all very fascinating to me. I’m sure some of it was CGI, but I think the great majority was old-fashioned stagecraft, with grips and other hands moving walls, setting things up just out of sight. Tricks like that. In addition, you could almost view the entire movie as an extended dance. Servants whirl in precise patterns waiting on the incredibly pampered, indulged, coddled, super-rich nobility.
The stunner of them all is the big “horse race.” I put it in quotes, because it is almost all done in the theater. The rich people sit in the theater floor and a big balcony, motionless, looking at the empty stage, and we hear the thunder of hooves, but see no horses. And then the horses burst on the scene, appearing at stage left and thundering across to stage right. Count Vronsky is in last place on his magnificent white horse! We CUT to exterior at night, hardly anything but the horses visible, then we CUT back to the theater, where the horses appear again. The big white stumbles, and falls off the stage, breaking her back. It was eye-popping.
So … about the story? Well, as Billy May once said to Stan Freberg after performing a sweet opening verse to “Cocktails For Two,” when asked why there was no chorus … “No, man, everybody knows the chorus to this turkey.” They tell the story, okay? It’s the same old story, well-acted, well-mounted, but really the same old story. It all looks grand, and Knightley is one of the most beautiful women in the world. I couldn’t ask for more …
… but many could. It’s a divisive movie; just take a look at the message boards at the IMDb. Many people hated it. I loved it. Your enjoyment will depend on whether or not you like an innovative approach. Some complained that it was all too clever, too aware of itself. I say, damn right. That was its strength. You can get a traditional staging of Anna Karenina with Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson from 1948, or Greta Garbo and Fredric March from 1935. If you want a straight story, rent those.