Here’s a word I never thought I’d use to describe a movie adaptation of Russian literature: delightful. But until its comparatively somber final half hour, that’s precisely what director Joe Wright’s sprightly take on Anna Karenina is, a pull-out-all-the-stops act of showmanship that refashions Leo Tolstoy’s downbeat portrait of adultery in late 19th-Century Imperial Russia as something resembling a comedy of errors not that far removed from the English director’s sunny retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Purists will inevitably poo-poo the movie’s stubborn refusal to give in to the text’s brooding pessimism. The rest of you will probably be as dazzled as I was by the imaginative mise en scene.
Instead of taking the conventional route in attempting to open up the novel for the screen, Wright embraces theatricality with a vengeance. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s incessantly roving cameras guide viewers through a series of vibrant tableaux deliberately framed by a theater stage, much like the red curtain shots in Moulin Rouge, so a sizable chunk of the film feels like scenes from a play. Ibsen lite, if you will. The unlikely result, however, is that this Anna Karenina feels thrillingly cinematic. Wright and his creative team engage in a sort of skillfully choreographed alchemy that mixes traditional elements until they feel irrefutably modern. It’s a stylistic high-wire act so gutsy that you start wondering whether they’ll be able to keep it up for the duration of the film. (They don’t, but more on that later.)
Fans of Wright’s Pride and Prejudice rejoice. That movie’s lovely romantic leads, Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, team up once again, only this time they’ve been cast as brother and sister. It seems Anna (Knightley) decides to pay a visit to her very naughty older sibling Oblonsky (Macfayen, sporting a paintbrush mustache Stalin would have admired). It seems the not-so-happily married family man has been shtupping the nanny, much to the dismay of long-suffering wife Dolly (Boardwalk Empire‘s Kelly Macdonald). It’s up to Anna, high-profile wife to influential public servant Karenin Alexandrovich (Jude Law), to talk her sister-in-law into forgiving her philandering husband. Mission accomplished, but not before Anna catches the eye of the dashing Count Vronsky (Nowhere Boy‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
It’s not long before tongues start wagging about the impending affair, even before Anna and Vronsky actually get physical. And, as it turns out, the intellectual, mild-mannered Karenin bares his fangs and shows a merciless dark side. Credit the film’s refreshing lack of melodramatic cause-and-effect plotting to Tom Stoppard’s ruminative, character-driven screenplay, which could have easily been directed as the grim cautionary tale we’ve experienced in previous versions of Tolstoy’s prose. Wright doesn’t entirely ignore the emotional undertow driving the Russian novelist’s work, but he pays special attention to the period’s pageantry and rigid societal structure. The Atonement director has made a tactile, sexy Anna Karenina, and that’s more than okay with me.
Alas, there’s that pesky problem with the book’s ending, which, in terms of tone, goes directly against the movie’s spirited, light-on-its-feet approach. Anna’s fate could have been handled with the operatic, slash-your-wrists abandon of, say, House of Mirth auteur Terence Davies, but the subdued variation Wright settles for feels more than a tad anticlimactic. Anna Karenina doesn’t end so much as just peter out. Until it gets to that point, however, this is audacious filmmaking of the highest order. Wright takes bold risks here, and it pays off with a sumptuous, insanely satisfying costume drama that doesn’t have a single dull moment in it. It’s safe to say this is not your mother’s tea-and-crumpets fare.
And Killing Them Softly, this weekend’s other new release that attempts to do something new with a shopworn genre, is not your father’s gangster flick. The new film from gifted Kiwi writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) takes the insular underworld society of American Mafia and turns it into a metaphor for our nation’s broken political system and ailing economy. He’s not subtle about it, either. Scorsese and Tarantino references abound.
In a jaggedly spliced opening sequence that, weirdly enough, recalls the beginning of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a two-bit thief walks down a seedy neighborhood. Garbage and debris swirl around the sullen loner. And what do we hear in the soundtrack? A campaign speech by Barack Obama. The year is 2004, and we’re in the middle of the hotly contested presidential election. As Frankie (Scoot McNairy) continues his listless stroll, Dominik pans up to reveal two adjoining billboards, one for John McCain and one for the president-to-be.
The thing about Killing Them Softly is, those jarring aural interludes aside, it plays like an expertly crafted genre piece, one that has no problem with being heavy on conversation and low on carnage (oh, but when the mayhem comes, it is brutal). Frankie and heroin junkie associate Russell (Animal Kingdom‘s Ben Mendelsohn) agree to carry out a robbery. The target? Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta in GoodFellas mode), a sleazeball running a clandestine card-game ring. The tension during the actual hit is so palpable that you feel that anything can happen.
Enter problem solver Jackie (Brad Pitt, Dominik’s Jesse James), hired by head honcho Dillon (a blink-and-you-miss-him Sam Shepard) to clean up this mess. In terms of narrative content, that’s pretty much it. It’s those larger themes that really fascinate Dominik, but that’s not to say his third directorial effort is devoid of welcome detours. None of those is more engaging than Jackie’s dealings with alcoholic prospective collaborator Mickey, played with lived-in disaffection by James Gandolfini, who knows a thing or two about playing a wise guy convincingly. Ultimately, his character’s role in this lean and piece and mean mobster yarn is fairly minor, but regardless of how you respond to the movie’s socially conscious agenda, Mr. Tony Soprano shines an unflattering light on the cost of a life of crime. It eats away at your soul.
Then there’s Dominik’s style, which alternates between sequences of hard-hitting brutality and one memorable death scene that uses slow motion and visual effects to lyrical effect. Here’s one adjective I rarely use to describe a crime thriller: poetic. But that’s exactly what Killing Them Softly is, at least whenever Dominik steps off the soapbox. It says its piece about the way we live now and then abruptly wanders off into the night.