First it's "Hanna" and now Joe Wright is going straight to "Anna", because if you thought that "Hanna" got slow, this film doesn't even give you enough time to sigh out an "H" before sending you to sleep. No, people, this film isn't quite that slow, though it does outstay its welcome a bit, even though it is, in a lot of ways, a bit too short at over two hours, which is surprising, considering that the book upon which this film is based was by Leo Tolstoy, who is known for keeping his literary efforts quite tight by, like, the standard of a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I, of course, haven't read any of this film's source material, but I'd imagine there were plenty of liberties taken, some of which got to be a bit too extreme, because last time I checked, Anna Karenina wasn't having an affair with a woman who disguised herself as a man so that she could become a cavalry officer. Oh no, wait, this isn't a woman, this is just Aaron John-Oh, I'm sorry, I mean, Aaron [u]Taylor[/u]-Johnson (Aw, he took the maiden name of his wife who is 23 years older than him; that's so cree-I mean, cute), who is just not pulling off the blonde hair and moustache. Hey, I may as well run with it, because there's no way they were going to keep him out of this cast that is populated by popular British folks for a reason that totally escapes me, seeing as how this film is based on a book from and actually set in Russia (Jeez, man, as "Star Wars" told us, you can't even get Brits out of space in political dramas set in foreign places). This film is so British that it's screenplay is by the guy who wrote "Sakespeare in Love", So, like I said, this film isn't quite the most faithful adaptation of Tolstoy's book of the same name, but the liberties don't quite end there, because where Tolstoy's source material was a realist novel, this film is more like a reality show with its really playing up a variety of flawed characters who are going facing saucy situation, only this film, unlike your usual reality show, is well-made, well-acted and actually mildly engaging with its drama... as well as a little bit less fun. No, again, people, this film entertains adequately, but it's not quite what it could have been, and for more than a few reasons.
Okay, now, to be totally honest, I joke about how slow this film is, and lord knows that I was going into this expecting some dull spells, seeing as how Joe Wright's previous efforts, including the super-stylized action "thriller" that he just did, "Hanna", slowed down something fierce time and again, but really, to both my surprise and my relief, this film is rarely, if ever truly dull, and yet, with that said, pacing issues are hardly absent from this period drama based on a classic piece of 19th century literature, and directed by Joe Wright, which defies my fears and stands as no bore, but all too often drags its feet when it comes to pacing, until, after a while, if you're not disengaged, it really starts hitting you how overlong this radical, 130-minute compression of a book that runs a sprawling 864 pages. As tightened up as this film is, at least compared to its source material, as well as certain fellow adaptations of Leo Tolstoy's borderline epic, there's still too much fat left around the edges, and steam suffers from the final product's dragging, though perhaps not as much as it suffers at the hands of the areas in this film's story structure that do anything but drag. I wasn't expecting the producers or, for that matter, Joe Wright to let this film get away with being as slam-bang hurried as a bad 85-minute Lifetime biopic, but I was expecting this two-hour interpretation of a novel that isn't but about 361 pages shorter than Leo Tolstoy's previous, more successful effort (If you guys think that that's an overwhelming difference in book length, then you clearly need to touch up on your Leo Tolstoy) to not be all that comfortable in its relative briefness, and while the final product could have been more inorganic in its compressions, it is too tight for its own good, leaving something like the Oblonsky subplot to feel somewhat forced, - especially when issues with story compression leave the somewhat inorganically incorporated subplot in question to outstay their welcome and bring about focal unevenness - and certain layered characters to come off as underdeveloped, not just to where you fail to get all that firm of a grip on the people who drive this drama, but to where key flaws within some major characters go pronounced to the point of producing unlikability, most notably within, of all people, our titular lead. There's enough meat to this film's characterization, as well as certain other story aspects, to get you by, but if this film needs to shave off, say, ten, or fifteen, or even twenty minutes, it also needs to make up for the time lost with almost an hour, for this final product's compressions don't always work, with some of the most disconcerting points of hurrying being, believe it or not, the intentional ones, as the film plays with a kind of stage storytelling, complete with intentionally jarring transitions, accompanied by style, if not all-out spectacle to obscure sloppiness within segment shifts, though not to where you can entirely forgive this film for its overstylized narrative. Of course, it's not like narrative is the only aspect within Wright's direction that gets to be a bit too stylish for its own good, because as praise-worthy as this film's stylistic proficiency is, sheer artistry gets to be a touch too much as a key storytelling element after a while, which leaves the film to feel too much like not much more than merely a visual companion to Tolstoy's substance-heavy novel, and full emotional resonance to take some damage. Now, I'm not saying that this film promised to be as strong as "Atonement", or even as strong as "Pride & Prejudice", but the film starts out showing signs of being Joe Wright's strongest film since "Atonement", and such signs can be found here and there throughout the film's body, but it doesn't take too long before steam goes and dashes this film's potential and your hopes along the way, and I can't help but blame Joe Wright all but entirely for this, because as, not simply strong or excellent, but near-phenomenal as he is as a stylistic director, when it comes to storytelling, he has had a streak of faultiness that continues with this film, a pretty project with high spots, but too much squandered potential and overambition on the whole. Still, regardless of its shortcomings, this film still carries on as decent, with plenty of missteps, but also plenty of supplements to entertainment value, or at least artistic value.
I don't know where or why in the world The Chemical Brothers would fit in this film, and I guess Joe Wright doesn't know either, calling back his good buddy, music composer Dario Marianelli, who makes a worthy comeback indeed, composing a score that isn't exactly one of the most refreshing in recent memory, but still upstanding, being pronounced and dynamic, with near-innovative stylistic touches, bonded with a wealth of classical elegance. The film accels musically, like pretty much every Joe Wright film, some of which have also acceled in production value, with this film being quite decidedly Wright's richest production, or rather, if you will, Wright's "Moulin Rouge!", boasting a quartet of art directors, - comprised of Thomas Brown of "Wrath of the Titans" and season 1 of "Game of Thrones", Nick Gottschalk and Niall Moroney of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" series and Wright's own "Pride & Prejudice and "Atonement", and Tom Still of "The Dark Knight Rises and Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" - whose efforts prove to be nothing short of phenomenal, going brought to life by Sarah Greenwood's exceedingly intricate and inventively lavish production designs, and complimented by Jacqueline Durran's delightfully diverse, richly classy and altogether outstanding costume designs, thus gracing this film with, if nothing else, exceptional design quality that may very well stand unparalleled in 2012, in terms of production value. This film's production value really does have to be seen to be believed, being every bit as remarkable as Marianelli's score, if not more so, yet the richness in this film's art direction and design tastes wouldn't be quite as stunning it is if it wasn't, like most everything else in this film, visually complimented by Seamus McGarvey's remarkable cinematography, yet another testament to Wright's fine tastes in artistic style, delivering on more than a few nifty shot stagings, and being lushly striking in its crisply detailed definition, which leaves lighting to elegantly strike, and color to emphatically bounce, sometimes in the fashion of a rich painting, often in a breathtaking fashion fashion, and consistently in a fashion that secures the focus your eyes, even when the film's storytelling isn't securing the focus of your undivided attention, and places this film high on the shortlist of best-looking films of 2012. Like I said, Joe Wright is consistently faulty as a storyteller in almost every one of his films, with even his best film, "Atonement", going all too often undercut by directorial hiccups, yet there is no Joe Wright film that is less than stylistically upstanding, with this film being anything of an exception, boasting outstanding artistry, as well as even such note-worthy technical strengths as Melanie Ann Oliver's clever editing, so of course the final product delivers on style, and when it comes to substance, like I said, there's too much underwhelmingness and overstylizing in Wright's execution of Leo Tolstoy's classic story concept, which is nevertheless still pretty strong, going betrayed by sloppy compressions and overambitions in execution, but still powered by intriguing layers and dramatic depth that can, on occasion, be seen within Wright's problematic direction. Moments in which Wright's storytelling and dramatic impact are far and few between, but they are worth waiting for, while livleliness in Wright's storytelling produces the unexpected entertainment value that makes the waits between the aforementioned dramatically impacting moments more tolerable, though not without yet another consistent strength that keeps you, to some degree, invested in this film: engaging acting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is slowly but surely coming into his own as a strong talent, yet I have heard people criticize him as rather wooden in this film, and honestly, I cannot agree with those complaints about Taylor-Johnson, who isn't exactly excellent in this film, due to material limitations, but boasts a charisma that strangely convinces you of Count Vronsky's entising poise more than Taylor-Johnson's slightly effeminate appearance, until dramatic material does show itself and gives Taylor-Johnson the opportunity to deliver on some compelling emotional range, topped only by the unevenly used, yet gracefully dramatic, near-transformative and all around standout Jude Law as the prim politician whose facing profound betrayals of trust will bring his human depths and darker sides to surface, as well as by leading lady Keira Knightley, who I have always found to be a hit or miss actress, with her performance in the relatively recent "A Dangerous Method" being one of the worst of 2011, so you can imagine my surprised in finding that Knightley, in this film, is delivering a performances that is both one of her best and at least worthy of honorable mention when it comes to discussions about the best performances by a lead actress of 2012, with layers and emotional depths that sell you on the shaky morality and anguish of our titular lead enough to make Anna Karenina a reasonably engaging character, no matter how unlikably written she is. I wish I could say that the sharpness in the artistic and acting departments of this film carries over into the final product's core substance, but there is still too much wrong with this film for the high points to make up for, which isn't to say that this film doesn't compensate just enough for its shortcomings to stand as an entertaining and aesthetically commendable effort, even though it could have been more.
As the curtains close, you're left thrown off by this film's many disengaging hiccups in momentum, which call more to attention this film's being too long, while focal and expository issues call more to attention this film's being too short, and with overstylizing distancing emotional resonance further, the final product comes out as underwhelming, though not in every department, delivering on impeccable artistic style - spawned from exceptional production value, Dario Marianelli's fine score work and Seamus McGarvey's stunning cinematography - to liven up an intriguing story concept, brought to life by occasions of dramatic effectiveness that break up consistent liveliness in storytelling, and carried by a triad of commendable lead performances, - particularly those of Jude Law and Keira Knightley - thus making Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" a consistently stylistically striking, often entertaining, sometimes compelling and all around decent unconventional take on Leo Tolstoy's classic novel, which I'm sure has still seen better translations to the screen.
2.5/5 - Fair