When style (almost) saves a deficit of substance

Aaron Taylor-Johnson's portrayal of the impetuous Vronsky is just one of the terrific acting performances in the movie.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of the impetuous Vronsky is just one of the terrific acting performances in the movie.

I was a bit stunned by director Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. I hadn’t read much about it, came upon it by accident and was immediately absorbed.

The visual “gimmick” is this: All the world’s a stage, and we are but players. It’s an effortless mix of live scenery and staged (and back stage) scenes, one that propels the plot and sets the tempo for the film. It’s a bit hard to describe, really, as I’ve never seen anything like it before. I’d definitely recommend it.

However, as always, story matters. Wright (director of Pride & Prejudice, also starring Keira Knightely) and writer Tom Stoppard create an effective story, but the end result is that the rise and fall, whims and madness of Lady Karenina seem a bit rushed. The novel is massive, so condensing it was likely a fool’s errand to begin with. That said, Karenina holds up for a quite a while under the weight of its own material, but starts to have problems heading into the third act.

That made me think of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, which had similar issues. While everyone was in love and the material was light, the music and dazzling set pieces flowed and the audience was easily engaged. But when Satine starts coughing up blood, everything grinds to a halt and Moulin Rouge starts to devolve into a bad episode of Glee.

Wright and his co-horts avoid that trap, thankfully. But in the end, Karenina feels like a 400 lb. man wearing a toddler’s shorts: Too much substance, not enough room for it.

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