BUCKING both the traditional impulse towards stuffy heritage cinema and the current trend for treating classic literature with stripped-down realism, director Joe Wright transforms Leo Tolstoy’s tragic tale of love and betrayal into an audacious piece of proscenium filmmaking.
Anna Karenina (12A)
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew MacFadyen
* * * *
Bombarding us with a dazzling array of theatrical conceits from the off, Wright uses the disorientating effect this creates to set the mood for the torrent of emotions destined to tear the characters apart. It’s a neat trick; an expressionistic way of creating a world within the film that is simultaneously big enough (and ostentatious enough) to capture the spirit of its epic source material while also being contained enough to keep the focus on the characters and their inner turmoil.
Here Keira Knightley does strong work as Tolstoy’s eponymous heroine. Always at her best when working with Wright (see Pride and Prejudice and her otherworldly turn in Atonement), she plays Anna with a mixture of wise-beyond-her-years resilience and open-hearted idealism that prevents her from seeming like just another naive victim of patriarchal society. Instead she comes across as a much more complex character, one who gives herself over completely to the notion of romantic love and ultimately falters not because it might be “the last delusion of the old order” (as one character describes it), but because the man she falls for isn’t, in the end, much of a man. That fact helps make the casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson a little more palatable. His Vronsky – all blond highlights, wispy facial hair and surly, attitudinal poses – may not seem like a credible source of lust-inspiring machismo, but there’s a rawness in his performance that makes his attractiveness to Knightley’s Anna entirely believable and Wright – working from Tom Stoppard’s full-throttle script – amplifies this to show how much these feelings cut both ways. They’re aided by Jude Law’s nuanced turn as Anna’s husband.
Law’s ability to humanise the dull but decent Karenin by subtly conveying the feelings of hurt, humiliation and betrayal he feels after Anna falls for Vronsky should rob us of all our sympathy for Anna. Instead it just makes her – and everyone around her – even more tragically human and, as a result, more empathetic. It’s an impressive feat, a technically dazzling experiment that won’t be to everyone’s cinematic tastes, but deserves credit for confounding expectations and, like its heroine, having the nerve to dive headlong into unchartered territory.
Directed by: John Hillcoat Starring: Shia Labeouf, Guy Pearce, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowski, Gary Oldman
PROHIBITION-ERA America turns out to be something of a creative dead-zone for Lawless director John Hillcoat and musician/writer Nick Cave. Collaborating for the first time since their brutal, brilliant Australian western The Proposition, this print-the-legend take on the real-life exploits of a family of bootleggers in 1930s Virginia is a mass of clichés, deadening violence and unconvincing performances.
A beefed-up Shia LaBeouf is the worst offender in this last respect. Cast as Jack Bondurant, the youngest of three brothers whose moonshine business is responsible for their home territory being nicknamed the Wettest County in the World, the Transformers star’s wavering accent (also used in the service of a clunky voice-over), together with the Bugsy Malone level of gravitas he brings to proceedings, makes for a laughable combination as he tries to hang tough in period backwoods gangster wear.
Sadly, the more seasoned members of the cast aren’t much of an improvement.
As Jack’s taciturn older brother Forrest, Tom Hardy’s grunting attempts to nail the Appalachian accent are cut mercifully short when his character’s throat is slit; a moment of grand guignol excess that threatens to tip the film into parody, especially when he subsequently holds the gushing wound together with his bare hands until Frankenstein-like stitches can be administered.
The bordering-on-parody tone is further enhanced by Guy Pearce who plays Rakes, a sadistic, dandily attired Special Agent who does everything but twirl a moustache as he arrives to shakedown the Bondurant boys (the other brother is played by Jason Clarke) when their unwillingness to fill coffers of the corrupt local law enforcers collectively makes them Public Enemy Number One.
Countering all this preposterous male chest-beating is the breathy presence of both Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowski.
Dusting off the virgin and whore archetypes, the film casts the latter as an angelic preacher’s daughter who turns the head of Jack and the former as an ex-dancer who runs away from a seedy city past and straight into the arms of Forrest. Neither is given much to do beyond providing victim potential to up the stakes for the film’s outlaw protagonists, which leaves only Gary Oldman’s brief appearance as a mob boss to lend the film the kind of short, sharp shock of unpredictability that one might expect from a film boasting such a strong array of talent. What a disappointment.
Directed by: Miguel Gomes Starring: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Isabel Cardoso
* * *
BOASTING an extended second-half flashback that unfolds without the protagonists uttering a word, Tabu has been picking up plenty of acclaim on the festival circuit this year for challenging narrative convention.
It’s too bad then that the silent cinema-influenced conceit – enriched by the fact that the film is shot in black-and-white in the old square-shaped Academy ratio – eventually feels more like a superficial trick than a dramatically engaging storytelling choice. That’s partly because the dual stories of lost love and regret it’s supposed to be underscoring feels fairly humdrum.
Set in modern day Lisbon, the first of these revolves around Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged spinster who tempers her loneliness by pouring herself into her job as a human rights campaigner and taking an excessive interest in her dementia addled-neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral). The latter’s degenerative condition has resulted in a fractious relationship with her black housemaid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), the colonial roots of which are gradually revealed as the film’s focus shifts to Aurora’s early life as a young woman in Africa whose life is complicated by matters of the heart.
The link between the two women’s fate is left pleasingly ambiguous, but despite the whimsical tone and gorgeous cinematography, it remains curiously unmoving.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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