Anna Karenina: 3/5
I’ve never read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but I’ve heard it’s a dense piece of work that’s extremely hard to whittle down. Such hearsay became an undeniable truth for me after seeing Joe Wright attempt his hand at adapting Tolstoy’s seminal tale of hypocrisy and love in Imperial Russia. Starring Keira Knightley in the titular role, Anna Karenina tells the tale of a sumptuous socialite that dares to stretch the boundaries of love. Married to the powerful Alexi Karenin (Jude Law), a religiously devout politician, Anna lives a life of simple leisure and grandeur, one that affords her a great deal of social popularity. The simplicity of Anna’s life vanishes when she encounters Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) while assisting her brother, Count Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), salvage his marriage in Moscow. Vronsky, sporting rich eyes and a garish mustache, attracts Anna’s gaze. Each look he sends her way is a lustful dare. Social impurity be damned, Anna succumbs to Vronsky’s alluring presence; she donates her body, heart and soul to the Count. Anna’s infidelity sets off a tale of betrayal, incalculable passion, and a raging paranoia. Basically, it’s a love story that only a Russian can tell.
Unfortunately, Joe Wright can’t capture the unbridled passion and tragedy of Tolstoy’s story. We can see the power bubbling underneath, but we’re never fully exposed to it. Rather, Wright leaves us out in the cold, seeking emotional attachment from his detached characters. The distance established between us and the complicated nature of Anna is undeniably the result of Wright’s interest in visually stimulating us. The look of the film, coupled with genius staging, is a work of art that pops off the screen. If there’s any reason to see Anna Karenina, it’s to see the indelible cinematography and staggering visuals which are so eloquently accompanied by another fantastic Dario Marianelli score. But no matter how picturesque the film is, it’s still a sloppy narrative in need of subtext and pacing. The latter is especially hard to overcome as Wright attempts to slam Tolstoy’s layered source material down our throat. The film moves so fast it’s hard to digest the painstaking work of the actors. What we’re left with is a beautiful, but deliriously paced film that glosses over characters and potentially rich themes. In many respects, it’s a Russian nesting doll one layer deep.
Take This Waltz: (4.5/5)
Continuing the trend of infidelity and marital dissolution is Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. Where Anna Karenina is beautifully hollow, Take This Waltz is scintillating and brazenly honest. The center of the film’s marital storm is Margot (Michelle Williams), a happily married woman of five years that fends off sporadic moments of restlessness. On a trip that finds her writing a brochure for a historical recreation site, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), a sensual artist with a charismatic charm. Upon their first meeting, it’s clear the two have an explosive sexual chemistry, but Margot would never act on it. But Margot’s restraint feigns when she finds out that Daniel lives across the street from her and her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen). Over the course of a sun soaked Toronto summer, Margot is left to reconcile her growing interest in Daniel with the miles she’s accumulated with Lou. She loves Lou and refuses to hurt him in any capacity, but she also feels as if she’s suffocating in her life, almost as if she’s slowly withering away. Through small, intimate moments we see the joy and stability Lou offers Margot, while colorful, illuminating sequences expose the romantic enthusiasm Daniel elicits from her.
Honestly, we can’t help but root for both sides of Margot’s emotional tug of war. One has to respect writer/director Sarah Polley’s ability to craft characters that aren’t deprived of humanity. Rather, each object of Margot’s affection is worthy of her love. Walking a fine line between humanistic yearnings and selfish desires is Michelle Williams as Margot. In one of 2012’s best performances, Williams perfectly embodies the confusion that grows between a dying marriage and a blossoming love. Most importantly, Williams personifies the varying emotions we experience when we feel our life has become stale. Despite Margot taking up an emotional affair, Take This Waltz is never judgmental. Instead, Polley leaves us to our own devices, forcing us to interpret the consequences of Margot’s decision in the end. Even though she lets us work out the finer details, Polley’s sharp eye behind the lens delivers lush, sweltering imagery. Whether it’s an octopus ride accompanied by The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” or a late night swim symbolically representing forbidden fornication, Polley’s vision burrows deep within. Because of this, Take This Waltz is a vibrant meditation on love, life, and longing, that’s hard to excavate from the mind.