In graduate school, I was subjected to a lot of experimental films that were both important to the development of cinema as an art form and so excruciatingly boring that I became intimately acquainted with every split end my hair ever had. So I get nervous when any film is in any way “experimental,” because I start to have flashbacks to the follicle-contemplating days of my youth.
Which is why “Anna Karenina,” out Friday, is such a joyful surprise.
Director Joe Wright stages most of the story in a decrepit Russian theater, complete with sets and an empty house. I heard that, and I rolled my eyes. But Wright has managed, through this device, to breathe new life into a classic story and give it new meaning. The layers of symbolism — often literal layers, as scenery is pulled back and pushed in — communicate characters’ ideas and emotions in a way that has echoes not only of early cinema, but of classical painting and sculpture.
Wright combines nearly every visual artistic medium without diluting their power; add to that performances (particularly Keira Knightley’s as Anna) that give nuance to characters who, in many previous iterations, have been reduced to caricatures, and you’ve got a film that’s on fire with emotion and talent, behind and in front of the camera. In every sense, Wright’s experiment is a success.