There are some movies that make you take a step back and just marvel at their design. The multiple levels of artistry that are involved go beyond any single element that one may see displayed in a museum or gallery. It’s almost overwhelming to the senses involved in watching a movie. That is to say if you see an appetizing piece of food on the screen, your imagination may let you reach within millimeters of almost tasting it. The experience goes beyond sight and hearing by simply making an effort to expand itself through those senses. And sometimes the movie’s good too.
Anna Karenina is an aristocrat in late 19th century Russia, intent on living a happy life but plagued by her need for the love of all, the love of one, and her inability to reconcile those two when it comes to pass that she must choose one. It’s a story that calls into question what someone is willing to sacrifice to be happy, and what happens when purist ideals come in contact with reality and the consequences of either adhering to or sacrificing them. The big question is– what is worth giving up when you’re promised your lifelong happiness for it?
No fancy words, no intimate descriptions or verbose explanations, this movie is beautiful. Even if you hate love stories, even if you hate a movie with slow pacing, even if you despise Russia at the moment because they decided to be more public about their dislike of “the gays,” this movie is an astonishing meal for the eyes that only comes around less than a few times in more than a few years. This stems from the desire to play around with the abstract. The story takes place as if it were between sets of a play, both on and off the stage, as if to say some elements of the character’s lives are a spectacle, that other’s are an act, and that presentations of contentment are thin veils for an ugliness that hides in the background. And while in aesthetic terms it looks wonderful, it seems to only serve as an anchor for the story making it harder to follow as events become more and more surreal, leaving the audience to hope that the scene plays a little longer in order to play catch up.
It’s “Cloud Atlas” meets “Lola Montes.” Themes of love and sacrifice permeating a story bent in the abstract culminating in something that is visually stunning yet bereft of a more solid narrative, instead being led as water in a stream, unable to create or retain the substance it seeks to convey. In short it’s like that sentence. There’s meaning, and the words come together nicely (if I do say so myself), but it doesn’t quite work because it uses too much to say too little. The themes of the story are simple, but the presentation is too complex to always have a hold on the theme, even moreso than simply a hold on what’s happening in the scene. It’s like when everyone said you wouldn’t get “Inception,” except instead of dreams it’s a metaphor for what the characters must endure as if there were an audience to their more personal affairs. But while you search for meaning in every frame of every shot as if it were a picture from “The Magic Eye,” you’ll say to yourself that everything looks really good. Because it does. Every element is a work of art, even if the story that comes together around it is a bit harder to read. Costumes, sets, choreography, and music all flair through this movie. I’m honestly amazed that “Anna Karenina” only has one Academy Award.
Not to mention the fact that everyone in this movie knows what the word acting means. I say that because Aaron Taylor-Johnson is in this, and if you’re going to the movies this weekend, you’ll recognize him as “Kick Ass.” Alongside my less than stellar review of “Savages,” I am absolutely turned around on what he is capable of with his performance here as Count Vronsky. Same goes for Keira Knightley, which isn’t to say I didn’t think she could act previous to this, but I can’t recall any movie where so much depended on her ability to perform. Of course, the standout here is Jude Law as Knightley’s husband and an important political figure, who has to constantly endure her transgressions. It’s like everything this movie touches turns to gold, but because it can’t… it suffers from being weighted down with so much being done right that it can’t function properly. It’s incredibly sad, because from what I’ve seen of the story, the surreal elements hold the audience’s attention for what is a rather slow story. It’s amazing how differently this story is told than in every other iteration of a female protagonist looking for happiness and love outside of the traditions of status. I just wish it could have been clearer. Then it may very well have won some more Oscars for it. Y’know, even though it won, “Argo” never seemed like a “Best Picture” to me.
It’s a great movie mind you, but it just never clicked in a “best this year has to offer” kind of way. This movie does that. “Anna Karenina” feels more like 2012’s best picture than the movie that won the award. Stay in, watch it, and appreciate this movie for everything that it offers, even if over the course of it your scalp might start to hurt from all the head scratching. Like I said, it’s very similar in terms of audience understanding to “Inception.” Which isn’t to say you won’t get it, or even that it’s particularly difficult to understand, at least by the end of it. But you have to put the disclaimer up all over the place anyway, especially when it interferes with the story, that your brain may work harder to keep up compared to the average movie going experience.
Watch this movie on HBO and HBOGo starting tomorrow (August 17th). If you’d like to own it forever check out the DVD and Blu-Ray on Amazon or better yet, READ THE BOOK!