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.
Later this year you will likely flock to your local movie theater to watch a young man become a super soldier at the height of WWII. This month you can see a somewhat less stylized but no less sensational story about a young girl who was born into a similar life of action and international adventure. Her name is Hanna and she can kill you with your own knife while it’s still in your hand.
Joe Wright (Atonement) directs this well-balanced coming of age story set within the cold and unforgiving world of assassins and espionage. The film follows the titular heroine who has lived a reclusive life in the forest with her rogue CIA-agent father on a vengeful mission that takes her all across the map. Trained to survive in the harshest conditions and fight like the spawn of Lara Croft and Rambo she is pursued by deadly adversaries as she inches closer to her primary target a ruthless CIA handler who had mysterious past dealings with her Dad all while discovering what life outside the woods is like.
While star Saoirse Ronan’s visceral turn is a marvel to observe so too is Wright’s. Like his protagonist he ventures into the unknown with this material taking the reigns of a film that couldn’t be any more foreign to him. Coming off of past projects grounded in romance and realism he forges new territory with Hanna delivering a fresh approach to the at-times tired spy thriller. He presents the major plot points of the story patiently delicately hinting at the big picture and always leaving you pining for more. Though the twist is ultimately predictable the fun part is putting the pieces of the puzzle together on your own. You’ll find more brilliance in his method by dissecting the picture piece by piece. His use of sound in both the film’s abstract score (from the sorely missed Chemical Brothers) and its effects which phase in and out at calculated points is in part a cinematic experiment that plays with perception in ways that audiences may not have experienced in a mainstream movie. There are also a few visual motifs in select scenes (most notably a killer fight sequence that ends with Eric Bana exterminating a handful of Agency henchman) that tell a parallel visual tale to supplement the narrative.
Thematically Hanna is even more complex. Screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr explore the limitations of a disconnected mind in their Black List-certified script giving their curious character the opportunity to learn much about society and her self while hitchhiking across continents. Of greater significance is the culture clash of Western materialism and Eastern minimalism manifested in the form of a British family traveling abroad that Hanna befriends (the young daughter played by Jessica Barden is a poster child for consumerism) and the contrast between Cate Blanchett’s Marissa Wiegler and Bana’s Erik Heller.
Provoking thought while providing plentiful doses of popcorn entertainment the film works on so many levels and is a unique entry in the collective canon of assassin-on-the-run flicks. Its story is far from groundbreaking but Wright’s surreal visuals and anti-establishment attitude make Hanna a radically original action experience.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Handsome James (Paul Dawson) is a bit depressed. In the opening scene he pees while taking a bath and then sets up his camera as he fellates himself while a stalker across the street (Peter Stickles) watches. Then James cries. He's miserable and his boyfriend Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) doesn't know what to do. They go to a sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). She in turn has incredible sex--or at least finds incredible positions--with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) but she can't achieve an orgasm. They all end up at a wild club called Shortbus which looks like a room even Caligula would love and whose guests range from a former mayor of New York to a popular drag queen Justin Bond (playing his/herself). It's at Shortbus where James and Jamie meet young Ceth (Jay Brannan) and to try to add spice to their relationship while Sofia meets an angry dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish) who thinks she can help with Sofia's quest. The most amazing part of Shortbus comes from the performers who are as real as it gets. Mitchell tries to get the actors to play parts of themselves asking them to reenact their most bizarre sexual experiences and developing the storylines around them. With that Mitchell is quoted in the press notes as saying that every orgasm is genuine--except one and he's not saying which one. For this reason perhaps the cast is filled with virtual unknowns except for a few choice cameos (character actor/publicist Mickey Cottrell with a dead guy in a whirlpool is a particularly good one). But the players are all superb in their own individual ways especially Dawson as the sad-eyed stud and Lee as the desperate therapist. Beamish also shows quite an emotional range and looks like a modern-day Cyndi Lauper. Watch for her star to rise. John Cameron Mitchell best known for his searing little indie gem Hedwig and the Angry Inch apparently auditioned 100 people by throwing a rather sexually open party not unlike the parties shown in the film. But Mitchell has got more than an inch showing up in Shortbus. It's as if he has re-made The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a non-musical live NC-17 version. All the film’s sexual explicitness seems almost voyeuristic but dances around being pornographic or grotesque. In fact the scenes are often devoid of eroticism coming across as funny creepy and sad instead. Mitchell also paints an intriguing canvas mixing animation and art as the camera swoops into different neighborhoods around Manhattan. Ultimately the parade of sexuality and bizarre characters plays like a Federico Fellini film but it makes much more sense. Mitchell's picture is raw but heartfelt and it’s going to make audiences uncomfortable. But obviously that's the point.