The 2012 awards season is coagulating. Thanks to SAG and the HFPA, we now have a solid list of contenders for Best Picture and a narrowing group of potential nominees for everything else. Forgive the metaphor, but it does feel a bit like goop. Both major lists of nominees this week are full of easily predicted choices, and the few unexpected picks that take us by surprise only do so because we thought they were too bland even for the HFPA. (Except for you, Nicole Kidman! There’s nothing bland about The Paperboy.) Don’t get me wrong, I love Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Maggie Smith, but this is getting unseemly. And the days are running out for films to make their way in from the sidelines.
However, I am going to take this last chance to fight through the often claustrophobic box of awards watching and shout to the heavens a bit about a movie I think should be getting substantially more attention. I was sort of hoping that the Golden Globe nominations would do that for me, given how hard they went for Atonement a few years ago. They like to shake things up in a good way, at least now and then. Alas, it seems it was easier to go out on a limb for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
Anna Karenina is the best awards-ready movie of the year that isn’t getting an ounce of awards attention. Frankly, I find it somewhat surprising. Joe Wright’s three literary adaptations are the sort of thing that we all assume will dominate – every list of stereotypical “Oscar bait” includes the phrase “prestige adaptation.” Yet it’s almost as if we’ve now reached a point where even the Academy has classic literature fatigue. I don’t think James Ivory’s trio of Best Director nods could have happened in the ’00s, and just last year Cary Fukunaga’s remarkably wrought Jane Eyre got absolutely nowhere. The pre-modern costume drama is out. We’ve moved on to gritty adaptations like No Country for Old Men or flashy international affairs like Slumdog Millionaire, trading in the high school English syllabus for the New York Times bestseller list.
Yet this sells Wright short. Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina are extraordinary works of cinema first and foremost, demolishing the adage that “the book is always better than the movie” not by equaling their source material but by making any value comparison irrelevant. Too many directors seem to simply follow a novel around with a camera, trying to be as faithful as possible while losing sight of the impossibility of 100% transposition of any book to the screen. Wright, on the other hand, acknowledges and embraces the inherent differences between cinema and literature.
It comes from a consciousness of adaptation. Wright doesn’t try to replicate the imaginative experience of reading the book, but rather plays with a freer kind of retelling. The music is a subtle, but excellent example of this. Dario Marianelli’s score is, at this point, the most likely Oscar nomination for Anna Karenina. Its sweeping majesty stands admirably on its own, but its relationship with Wright’s ambition is where it should really be praised. It builds from an old Russian melody, notably used by Tchaikovsky in his 4th Symphony. Marianelli presents it, sung as a folk song and orchestrated like the 19th century master. Yet as he weaves it throughout the film, it becomes a blended dialog with both these sources. Subtler but no less important than the typewriter in Atonement’s score, Anna Karenina engages with the idea of creative adaptation in its most ephemeral details.
Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for film is to prove itself as a necessary addition to the legacy of Tolstoy’s titanic novel. The strokes need to be bold, but more than that they need to be deeply cinematic. It’s not enough to simply put Anna in a lovely hat, it needs to be a hat that draws attention to how much pleasure we get from seeing her on screen rather than on the page. The scene at the races brings to mind the exaggerated costumes at the Ascot races in My Fair Lady, another film that took costume design to a lush new height. The very much attainable nominations for Best Costume Design and the newly-renamed Best Make-Up and Hairstyling are well-deserved.
The real coup, however, is in the grand integration of theater as a medium between literature and cinema. Anna Karenina opens on the stage and keeps us there for the entire film, moving about a malleable world that ranges from the orchestra pit up through the rafters. It’s a brilliant device that makes the obligatory cuts to the novel seem much more eased, and allows us to maintain an intimate relationship with such a sprawling story. The film becomes a conversation between arts, arranged with a mercurial quality. Melanie Oliver’s editing embraces the ballet-like pace, assisted by the clever theatrical flourishes of Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Seamus McGarvey’s dynamic photography. As an audience we are drifting through but never lost, led on a waltz through the great halls of Tsarist society. With echoes of 8 1/2 and All That Jazz, Wright overcomes theater’s unity of place and literature’s lack of simultaneity without losing an ounce of style.
The cast is equally on point. Wright’s ability to arrange and perfect the disparate elements of his films has always extended to his actors, and Anna Karenina without a doubt has one of the best ensembles of the year. Keira Knightley and Jude Law also deserve to be recognized on their own. Yet the real story here is Wright’s collaboration with Tom Stoppard, building a screenplay that doesn’t for a second feel like was crammed down from an 800-page book. The theater notion is brilliant, but so are the smaller things. It flows between rich cinematic set pieces, balls and operas and horse races that understand the fullest potential of the camera and effortlessly weave between conversations and characters.
Pride & Prejudice was nominated for four Oscars. Atonement was nominated for seven, winning for Marianelli’s score. Yet neither managed to swing a nod for Wright himself, and it looks like Anna Karenina won’t either. I think it might come from the easy write-off of the prestige adaptation as pretty fluff that doesn’t really add much to cinema, and that’s a shame. Anna Karenina’s look is obviously gorgeous, but this beauty has real thematic ambition. It comes from the creativity of its screenwriter and the vision of its director, and that sort of erudite and aspirational filmmaking should be recognized. The season is solidifying, but it isn’t quite there yet. Maybe there’s room for a major surprise or two.