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.
September 16, 2005 5:05am EST
The socially inept Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon) is a workaholic doctor who never leaves the hospital. Her married sister Abby (Dina Waters) tries in vain to set up with a good man to no avail. But fate is about to intervene. On her way home from a long shift Elizabeth gets into a head-on collision with a semi-truck and suddenly the lines between life and death are blurred. Jumping forward we meet David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) a guy wallowing in self-pity from the death of his wife two years earlier who to find some solitude moves into a fabulous furnished apartment. What he doesn't know is the previous tenant hasn't left not really. That's right it was Elizabeth's apartment and for whatever reason (seriously they don't entirely explain it) Elizabeth--or her spirit I guess--hasn't grasped the idea that she is in well limbo. Only David can see her of course as she yells at him for leaving sweat rings on the coffee table but Elizabeth eventually grows on him. She elicits his help in finding out what happened to her and with a little help from the eccentric Darryl (Jon Heder) a bookstore employee who has the gift for sensing spirits David and Elizabeth find that heaven and earth are not really that far apart.
As our romantic pair Witherspoon and Ruffalo do an adequate job adhering to the staid romantic comedy formula. Witherspoon is one of the more consistent comedic actresses these days and has the sweet but controlling ingénue routine down to a science. But it may be time for her to take a break from the standard fare and head back to the indies getting down and dirty like she did in Election. Ruffalo does a pretty impressive job for his second time as the romantic lead. As he did with 13 Going on 30 Ruffalo at least tries to add some quirky twists to a boring character. Still he should also probably stick to showcasing his dramatic acting talent in cool indies much like he did in You Can Count on Me. It's Heaven's side characters who have all the fun. Waters (The Haunted Mansion) does a nice turn as the caring sister who's own hectic life as a mother of two rambunctious kids always seems to interfere with what she's doing. Donal Logue (TV's Grounded For Life) as David's therapist best friend too has a fun time yuking it up. But the real standout in an otherwise dull universe is Napoleon Dynamite himself Jon Heder in his second feature film. He's still a geek but at least this time he's a mystical one who knows a thing or two about wandering spirits. Of course he also gets the best lines: "I'm 99.9 percent parched here. I need a cola." I'm going to use that one from now on.
As the director of the satirical Mean Girls and the cutesy Freaky Friday Mark Waters may be out of his element with an out and out romantic comedy. The initial idea about a women whose stuck in the spirit world until she finds the true love she never sought after in life is somewhat intriguing. But rather than play with that the film just ends up your standard romantic comedy while also stealing from other films such as Ghost and The Sixth Sense. Just Like Heaven also has some serious logistical flaws. For example seeing how Elizabeth is supposed to be a ghost--that she can't touch anything tangible and can walk through walls tables and just about anything else--she is later seen laying on top of a table. It doesn't make sense as to how she can walk through it at one moment and be on it the next. And the fact you are paying attention to these inconsistencies means you just aren't caring that much about the rest of the film.