Style over substance is a complaint often lodged against big-budget action movies and slick comic book adaptations. But toward Oscar bait based on famous literature? Not as common.
Yet, here we are with Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina," a retelling of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel, packed to the limit with elaborately lavish theatrics, dressing, camera movements and choreography. The trailers call these things "a bold new vision." I call it a bunch of pretty, meticulously crafted distractions.
As adapted by playwright and "Shakespeare in Love" scribe Tom Stoppard, "Anna Karenina" serves as a fairly trimmed-down telling of Tolstoy's epic tale of loves gained and lost. Keira Knightley (who previously worked with director Wright on his two other literary adaptations, "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement") plays the titular character, a Soviet aristocrat stuck in a dull, lifeless marriage with the respected Count Alexi Karenin, played by Jude Law.
Her wealthy-yet-inert life becomes a public debacle when she falls into an affair with the young and handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from "Kick-Ass"). What ensues is an internal battle between obligation and desire, public image and private desire, and the horrible, fickle forces of love.
At the same time comes a more optimistic tale of love between Levin and Kitty (Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander). It doesn't start well, as she turns down Levin's awkward marriage proposal with the assumption that the charming Vronsky will propose as well. He doesn't, Levin flees to the Russian countryside and Kitty becomes filled with hurt and then regret.
The unique innovation Stoppard and Wright bring to this particular telling of "Anna Karenina" is the staging. That being the literal staging, as Anna's epic battle with the forces of love takes place mostly in an elaborate old theater. A change in setting is often just a walk across the stage away, the backstage mess of ropes, ladders and lights are visible and chandeliers and other settings descend into the frame as though controlled by invisible crewmen while the cast freezes or slows in place. The stage even opens up to reveal a Soviet country winter, a train station or a crucial horse race.
It's an inventive and often captivating storytelling idea (no surprise coming from Wright, whose slick, composed visual sense also made last year's "Hanna" one of the year's best action films) that even fits with the intense melodramatic elements of Tolstoy's tale. So much of Anna's story feels like a theatrical tragedy; it only seems fair to make the audience feel like just another member of the Russian elite, watching her drama with rapt, judgmental attention.
Wright and Stoppard, however, don't stop at the setting. Most of the characters' movements are filled with elaborate choreography and flourishes, whether during a dance or merely entering a building. It adds to the notion of everyone's lives being carefully organized according to society's expectations, structure and blocking.
However, that's exactly what "Anna Karenina" feels like: blocking. Everything is so elaborately planned, frightfully aware and hyper stylized that the emotions and story can barely breathe. It's all very beautiful and visually impressive, but for a story about love and passion, the story feels limp, crushed by the weight of all of its lavish complexities. It also feels mighty rushed, though perhaps that's to be expected when trying to compress an almost-1,000-page novel into a two-hour film.
If any emotion is to be found in "Anna Karenina," it's in the performances. Knightley is compelling as always, a world of suppressed emotions and confusion simmering under her regal chill. She sparks considerable chemistry with Taylor-Johnson, who seems a bit too young but is sufficiently handsome and charming. Law is also very good as well, playing her cold, baffled husband, sympathetically trying to figure out what to do next.
As the younger, blooming romance, Gleeson and Vikander don't make much of an impression, partly because the film's speedy pace doesn't give them much time. However, a conversation involving some children's letter blocks serves as a highlight for the entire film, a rare case of intimate emotion trumping flashy spectacle. Matthew Macfadyen (last seen in Paul W.S. Anderson's regrettable "The Three Musketeers") steals a few scenes as well as Anna's cartoonish brother.
"Anna Karenina" has the cast and the content to be a great literary adaptation. Instead, style wins out. In the end, it resembles a cake covered in a foot of frosting and sprinkles. The cake may be delicious, but it's impossible to taste underneath all of its décor. It sure looks nice though.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published June 30, 2015
After traveling the globe in support of its star-making self-titled debut album, PHOX's tour is bringing them right back to where its journey started in the first place: Wisconsin. Before it heads home to Baraboo, the band is dropping by its "home away from home" of Milwaukee to play Summerfest, opening for Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros on Thursday, July 2. Before then, we talked to Matt Holmen about his own fond Big Gig memories.
Published June 29, 2015
According to, well, herself, DJ Paris Hilton is one of the top paid DJs currently working. Unfortunately, much like the "Transformers" movies, her Summerfest set was one of those situations where the amount of the money involved was inversely proportionate to the amount of skill on display. Also like the "Transformers" films, it was loud, clunky, sporadically dull despite all of the noise, unnecessarily lengthy and, by the end, left me in a little bit of pain.
Published June 28, 2015
If you've seen Disney/Pixar's latest animated hit "Inside Out," there's a good chance a certain song has been rattling around in your mind ever since. No, not that TripleDent gum jingle, but the chorus to "Lava," the brief and beautifully rendered short about a volcanic island looking for love. While the short takes plenty of inspiration from Hawaii, as it turns out, Murphy's journey to get there made a stop right here in Milwaukee.
Published June 28, 2015
As clearly proved Saturday night at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, "Shut Up And Dance" pop rockers Walk The Moon can now draw a packed house. The only question: Would they put on a show worthy of the face painted mob they gathered? Most certainly.
Published June 27, 2015
For a guy whose latest album was titled "Can't Even Do Wrong Right," a lot has gone pretty right for legendary blues rocker Elvin Bishop over the past 365 days - an award-winning new album, a place on the soundtrack of one of Hollywood's biggest hits, a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and now a headliner gig at Summerfest on Tuesday, June 30.
Published June 27, 2015
The old-school folk group Punch Brothers tried something different and set their goals somewhere new Friday night at the BMO Harris Pavilion. Lead singer and maniacal mandolinist Chris Thile said their mission was not to raise the roof, but "tap the roof," delicately nudging the ceiling with his pointer fingers. Well, congratulations Punch Brothers; you tapped the roof Friday night at Summerfest. And then some.
Published June 26, 2015
Judging by X Ambassadors brief seven-song Summerfest set at a well packed U.S. Cellular Connection Stage early Thursday evening, there's still some work to be done before the band officially earns the title of Top 40 rock heir apparent. However, the potential is most certainly there, and by the end of the rockers' setlist, it was on full display.
Published June 25, 2015
Before the indie pop duo's upcoming Summerfest gig at the Miller Lite Oasis on Sunday, June 28, OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Mates of State's Jason Hammel to chat about the band's decision to stop making LPs, his sad memory of Milwaukee and "The Rumperbutts." Yes, "The Rumperbutts."
Published June 25, 2015
Even with the raw, raspy state of lead singer Dan Smith's voice, indie rockers from across the pond Bastille put on a show Wednesday evening at the Miller Lite Oasis that played much more like Pompeii the infectiously catchy radio hit than Pompeii the infamous natural disaster.
Published June 23, 2015
From Kendrick Lamar to OK Go to, yes, DJ Paris Hilton, OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Matt Mueller has a busy 11 days of Summerfest coming up. For his friends and family, in case you need to get a hold of him over the next week and a half, here's where you can find him (a good bet: the never-ending drum circle). And for everyone else, these are his picks.