When director Peter Jackson was backstage in the interview room the night RETURN OF THE KING netted 11 Oscars, he was asked if he thought his success would encourage more filmmakers to make fantasy films. "All films are fantasy films," was his reply, "no matter what their subject matter."
With his new version of the usually tragic tale of "Anna Karenina", director Joe Wright seems to agree. This is the novel by Tolstoy that has seen Anna portrayed on screen by Greta Garbo and Vivian Leigh and now Wright's go-to-girl for costume dramas, Keira Knightley (with whom he teamed in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement").
It is a lush and at times compelling version of the tale, although Anna herself comes off as perhaps the woman for whom the term "high maintenance" was first coined. But that isn't the problem. The problem is Wright's decision to play out the story as if portions of it were unfolding on a stage. Wright doesn't do this symbolically, but literally. At certain times in the movie, curtains open up, we see the footlights, we're backstage, we're climbing on the catwalk.
It has long been a Hollywood tradition to use miniatures at times to portray railroad trains, but the train set Wright uses looks like it may have been the prize in a long ago cereal box; a faux horse race is a particularly odd set piece, taking place indoors.
Still, the story is fascinating, the acting for the most part top- notch. Although the usually reliable Matthew Macfadyen seems to have stumbled in from a Monty Python skit somewhere and Aaron Taylor-Johnson who portrays the supposedly dashing and romantic Count Vronsky is not only a small, slender pretty boy, but he also looks as if he's barely 16. There are moments when Anna seems more like his mother than his paramour. And Anna's long-suffering husband doesn't come off as an unfeeling prig so much as a well-meaning but total oddball.
Wright also indulges in what can only be described as a bit of grotesquerie with the husband carefully carrying to bed a condom housed in a shiny silver box.
The key word here is stylization and not since the Germans invented expressionism have the movies seen anything as stylized as what audiences get here. However, it adds nothing to the telling or emotion of the tale, serving instead as a consistently annoying reminder that you are indeed watching a movie and that all these people are actually just ordinary people doing their jobs and expecting a paycheck at the end of it all.
There are moments of relief from the stage and the miniatures and in fact, there are entire scenes where you get caught up in the story. But soon that overly theatrical whimsy is back and we find ourselves jarred out of that sense that Coleridge referred to as the "willing suspension of disbelief."
This is certainly a film that will be talked about, but definitely for the wrong reasons.
It rates two stars.
by Jonathan Mumm, firstname.lastname@example.org