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.
Our favorite shows feel perfect for their respective networks: The nude-friendly Game of Thrones is a tried-and-true HBO series, the tortoise-slow Mad Men fits AMC’s intelligent and patient viewers, and The Big Bang Theory never met a laugh track CBS didn’t like. But what if those series appeared on different networks? How would the show change? We’re exploring just that in our Network Swap series. Next up: What if Downton Abbey aired on CBS?
Series: Downton Abbey
TV Rating: TV-14/TV-NFVWT. That last one stands for “Not For Viewers With Taste."
Logline: Downton Abbey is an uproarious new multi-camera sitcom that centers on Matt Crawley, a New York City stockbroker who suddenly inherits a sizable fortune — and a sick mansion populated by his three long-lost British female distant cousins — when their parents die, leaving no male heir. (It's an "old fashioned" family.) Since Matt no longer has to work, is bored by his new upper-class suburban lifestyle, and is scorned by the bitter and uptight Crawley sisters, he instantly establishes a "bromance" with his stoner butler Bates, even though Matt's persistent bad behavior is always getting Bates in trouble with his girlfriend, Anna. (A local stick-in-the-mud bank teller, who is pressuring Bates to get married and somehow always in the house.) Matt will get to keep the house and fortune forever if he settles down and has a family, but will his wild womanizing ways (and the scheming, crafty Crawley sisters) get in the way of the life he always dreamed of?
Setting: The sprawling Westchester County, New York house of the recently deceased Earl and Countess of Grantham (they're sort of like the "Countess" from Real Housewives in that everyone jokes about their titles behind their backs), but they only show three rooms — the living room, Matt's bedroom, and the servants' kitchen. There's also a local bar that Matt and Bates frequent when they need to get out of the house.
Demographic: CBS' Downton Abbey dominates the Tuesday at 8 p.m. time-slot, due to its loyal male 18-49 demographic. It is particularly popular with sexually frustrated dads, Midwesterners, and men who don't think women are funny. No one in Brooklyn, New York watches this show. They only watch reruns of Breaking Bad on Netflix.
Pilot Plot: We meet Matt, who is hungover in bed with a beautiful New York City woman when he gets the call that he's now a very wealthy man. He quits his Wall Street job, packs his bags, and moves into Downton, where he is hilariously spurned by all three Crawley sisters and their wacky live-in cougar grandmother (Carolyn Hennesy) who refers to herself as a "Dowager Countess." He quickly bonds with Bates (who just got into yet another fight with his girlfriend) over a late night bottle in the jacuzzi. They bitch about the women of the Abbey, and a friendship is born.
Breakout Star: Sherri Shepherd, who plays the sassy, brassy, overweight cook Ms. Patmore. She's never afraid to say what she's thinking — and this large and in charge cook has a real "taste" for Matt. Her off-the-cuff one-liners are the new "How you doin'?"
Soundbite: "Well they don't call me Countess for nothing — but I count men, dear, not numbers." — The Dowager Countess, when Mary realizes that the recession has caught up to the estate, and some of them might need jobs.
Sweeps Twist: After a wild night, Matt wakes up in bed next to the Dowager Countess! He knows this will set off Mary, the uptight oldest sister who is Matt's main foil/obvious eventual soulmate. Distraught, and with the drunken Countess still passed out, he calls Bates to help him carry her back to her own room — but when Anna somehow catches them, all hell breaks loose. The sisters stop speaking to Matt and their grandma, and Bates is forced (by Anna) to quit — leaving Matt with no choice but to replace him with the scheming, comedically gay Thomas, who had been vying for Bates' position (and Matt's attention) all along. Uncomfortable gay come-ons and laugh tracks abound!
Reason People Watch: For the guys, Matt is living the dream — he's an everyman who suddenly gets reversed New Girl'd, only with hotter roommates and a ton of money. For the ladies, Matt's puppy dog eyes and occasional self-reflection make him a lovable antihero — and you can cut the sexual tension between him and Mary with one of Patmore's knives. Also, everyone knows that when single men and women try to platonically live together, hilarity ensues.
What the Critics Say: "If this is what a 'modern family' looks like, we'll take the old-fashioned type." "A must-watch for fans of Two and a Half Men." "Ballsy, bawdy, broad comedy fun — CBS at its very best."
Emmy Odds: Bates is a long-shot for Best Supporting Actor, but as soon as Parsons is out of the picture he'll be a shoo-in.
Spin-Off Possibilities: Who doesn't want to see Ms. Patmore's working-class, urban family life?
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: PBS]
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