Forget that the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's sweeping romance novel comes from the man who brought us the slick-but-stuffy Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Every frame of director Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is a wonder to behold overflowing with visual spectacle and roaring performances. Keira Knightley Jude Law Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the rest of the cast fit perfectly in the high drama epic but it's really Wright's playground. Following Hanna an artful spin on the action movie Wright returns to the period drama but injects it with dazzling daring choices. A book like Anna Karenina could once fit in reality but its larger-than-life legacy precedes it. Wright acknowledges that from frame one approaching the film like a grand ballet or opera where grand gestures broad emotions and overt theatrics are commonplace. That vision clicks transforming Anna Karenina into an exhilarating moviegoing experience.
The storyline of Anna Karenina isn't far off from a daytime soap: It's 1874 and Anna (Knightley) is floating through existence as the wife of influential government player Karenin (Law). But when her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) summons her to Moscow to save his marriage Anna's entire world is shaken up. She meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson) a cavalry hunk who finds himself smitten with the taken lady. She's in the same boat: The two strike up a flirtatious relationship that evolves into one of sexual passion. A scandalous affair would incite trouble in the preset day but in the 19th century it's the ultimate crime. Quickly Anna's life comes crumbling down.
The intertwining melodrama of Anna Karenina earned the novel its classic status but Wright uses the material as a launching pad for imagination rather than a tome to translate to screen. Many of the scenes are staged in a theater creating an instant awareness of the production. Sets shift and are reconstructed into new rooms; actors costume change in the span of single shots; action sequences like a thrilling horse race are conducted on stage with special effects you might see on Broadway. Wright works this sort of stylization in the other direction too; a character could walk an empty stage open a door and suddenly be on a snow-covered hill. Anna Karenina isn't the first film to use the effect but in Wright's hands it's exhilarating.
The movie is Wright's third collaboration with Knightley and easily their most successful. Knightley never struggles to stay on the same page as the heightened material whether she's nailing a dance sequence or breaking down in a flood of tears. Casting an ensemble around Knightley is no easy task but Taylor-Johnson gives his best work yet as the debonair love interest and Macfadyen steals the show with moments of physical comedy.
We have expectations of the texture and structure of period romances. Anna Karenina defies them. Masterpiece Theater it is not.
Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.
The year's first space disaster flick, "Supernova," will blast into the stratosphere this week.
Along with the sci-fi thriller, this week's openers include the family drama "My Dog Skip," Ice Cube's "Next Friday" and the baseball documentary "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."
Here's a look at the new films hitting theaters - and the films already around going into new release patterns:
"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" (Cowboy Booking) -- Portrait of the legendary Bronx-born Jewish baseball player who came close to breaking Babe Ruth's home-run record. Tall, handsome, and uncommonly good-natured, Greenberg was a secular Jew from Bronx who became "the baseball Moses," an icon for everyone from Walter Matthau to Alan Dershowitz. (Limited release)
"My Dog Skip" (Warners) -- Based on the autobiographical book by Willie Morris, the film chronicles the growing pains of an unpopular, introverted 9-year-old boy living in a small Mississippi town during World War II. The arrival of a Jack Russell terrier puppy on his birthday will open the boy up to valuable lessons of life and friendship. Kevin Bacon plays his overprotective father. Diane Lane co-stars as his mother. (Limited release)
"Supernova" (MGM/UA) -- Set in the 22nd century, this sci-fi thriller follows the rescue mission of Nightingale 229, an ambulance spacecraft dispatched to investigate a distress signal from a distant comet. Awaiting the six members are a lone survivor, a strange alien artifact and a star that is about to go supernova. James Spader, Angela Bassett and Lou Diamond Phillips play the time-bound rescuers. (Wide release)
"Next Friday" (New Line) -- Ice Cube produces, writes and stars in this sequel to 1995's comedy hit "Friday." The action picks up where the original film left off with Cube taking down the neighborhood bully. In fear of revenge, the young man flees the inner city to hide out at his uncle's suburban home. (Limited release)
"The Quarry" (First Run) -- Set in the South African outback, an escaped criminal accidentally kills a minister and assumes his identity. His action catches up with him when a band of petty thieves discover his true identity and threaten to expose the impersonator. Based on the novel by South African writer Damon Galgut. (Limited release)
"The Terrorist" (Phaedra) -- Inspired by events surrounding the assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, this insightful portrait traces the final days of a female bomber preparing for a suicide mission to kill a major political figure. Her ideological quest transforms into a spiritual and psychological journey after a series of encounters she has with various characters. (Limited release)
"Girl, Interrupted" (Sony) - Winona Ryder stars in this based-on-a-true story tale of a teen confined to a psychiatric ward. Angelina Jolie co-stars as a fellow patient. (Expanded release)
"Holy Smoke!" (Miramax) -- Kate Winslet plays a young Australian woman who journeys to India for spiritual enlightenment. When her family suspect her transformation is in fact the doing of religious brainwashing, they hire Harvey Keitel to rescue her. Undermining his task, the experienced guru gets sucked into a world of temptation. Directed by Academy Award-winning director Jane Campion. (Expanded release)
"The Hurricane" (Universal) - Denzel Washington stars as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the real-life middleweight boxer who was wrongly convicted of the murders of three white men in 1966. Deborah Kara Unger, John Hannah and Liev Schreiber co-star as the activists who champion his cause. (Expanded release)
"Jesus' Son" (Lions Gate) -- Billy Crudup plays an itinerant junkie stumbling across 1970s America, searching for meaning in everything from drugs and sex to chance encounters with anonymous strangers. Samantha Morton, Holly Hunter, Denis Leary and Dennis Hopper co-star. (Expanded release)
"Topsy-Turvy" (USA) -- Acclaimed director Mike Leigh leaps back in time to enter the lives of two Londoners who were marked by their extraordinary creativity: William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. (Expanded release)