‘Life of Pi’ towers, ‘Lincoln’ sets us free and ‘Anna’ gets hung up on artifice
When it comes to movies, the period from just before Thanksgiving to Christmas Day is nearly as rampant with releases as the summer. The big difference? Films are concerned with generating acclaim as well as dollars, just in time for awards season.
That doesn’t, of course, mean they are good, just that the studios have confidence that they might be perceived as such. Still, the slate is promising. Starting, of course, with Lincoln: Put Spielberg behind the lens of a Movie About Serious Issues, release it in December and you’re baiting the Academy; stir in Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones (five Oscars between them) and you might as well start writing the acceptance speeches.
And in part, that’s what holds the film back. Set almost entirely during the furious five weeks before passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, when log-rolling usurped rail-splitting as Lincoln’s primary skill. Desperate to get the slaves legally freed before the war formally ended, Lincoln set about sending his minions through Congress, promising political favors and simply guilting as many of them into voting for the amendment as possible to assure dignity for all mankind.
That’s a noble cause under any circumstance, so why does Spielberg begin with an extraneous battleground scene as Lincoln (Day-Lewis), lit like his selfsame monument, sits Buddha-like as two black soldiers recount the simple elegance of his Gettysburg Address from memory. Why beatify Abe from the get-go, as if his legacy is not already known? It’s the same flaw he made with last year’s War Horse, where the Thoroughbred Joey was shot as if he was born in a manger.
Mercifully, such forced reverence doesn’t last too long; eventually the humanity of the 16th president manifests itself in his deeds. From there, screenwriter Tony Kushner takes his most daring approach: Concentrating not on the life of Lincoln nor even the brutality of the Civil War, but the internecine inner workings of 19th century politics. There has rarely been a talkier film, but also one as defiantly confident in its audience’s tolerance.
Not all of it works; a subplot about Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) goes nowhere, and the decision not to show Lincoln’s assassination is a peculiar one. But Day-Lewis’ toweringly evocative performance — rambling anecdotes told like parables in his thin tenor — puts you right there. Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln), Jones (as an abolitionist congressman) and James Spader (injecting some modernism as a scalawag operative) do exceptional work, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s lighting of interiors is breathless to behold. With our own contentious election season just behind us, Lincoln reminds us how little things have changed … and how poignant it can be when men stop serving their own selfishness and do something because it is right.
Whereas Lincoln begins by projecting its theme, Life of Pi does the opposite. For the first 30 minutes or so, director Ang Lee treats us to bucolic scenes of flora and fauna in exotic India, intercut with a prosaic kitchen conversation in Toronto between an aspiring writer (Rafe Spall) and the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), who recounts an amazing journey he experiences as a teenager. It looks as if we might be subjected to We Bought a Zoo 2, or worse, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: The Sequel.
Tsk-tsk, that’s just Lee lulling us into a false sense of comfort. How grounded we feel on terra firma, which contrasts to being adrift — literally — when Pi (Suraj Sharma as a young man) is the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, forced to float in a vast glass of calm ocean waters, sharing his lifeboat with the only other ship’s passengers: a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena … and a ferocious Bengal tiger.
What follows is nothing like what preceded it: As soon as the typhoon engulfs the steamer, in a sequence that makes the entirety of The Perfect Storm look like a child’s bathtub splashing, Lee never relents, generating both beauty and tension for longer than any craftsman filmmaker has a right to. Almost 90 minutes we endure the endless horrors and mystical transformation that Pi experiences in photography as ethereal and jaw-dropping as anything ever put on screen. Life of Pi is equal parts wonder and wondrous, as magical and spiritual as a walkabout, but far more gorgeous.
Sharma, a first-time actor, delivers a pitch-perfect performance, most of which is a pas-de-deux with a CGI jungle cat (itself so stunningly rendered as to make you question whether it could possibly be real). He’s both our guide and our surrogate, and we feel every wave with him.
Life of Pi is the best kind of film: One that combines many elements expertly, but where the total exceeds the sum of its parts. As an allegory about self-awareness, as an adventure yarn a la Treasure Island, as a travelogue and as a special-effect-laden blockbuster, it is gangbusters; but as the year’s most fully realized vision of the bounds of cinema, there are few words for it. Life of Pi towers above all other films this year. It’s one not to miss.
Keira Knightley, the beaver-toothed star of the latest version of Anna Karenina, is an actress I could watch for days. She’s rapturous and, last year’s unnervingly awful A Dangerous Method aside, a capable actress, at least when laced up in bodices: Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Pirates of the Caribbean. (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World? No thanks.) She has conviction and she seems determined enough to convince you, as an actress, that you’re not wasting your time with her.
But that’s more or less how I felt by the time Anna Karenina was over. Director Joe Wright and scenarist Tom Stoppard have constructed the entire film around a conceit: That the societal conventions of 19th century Russian aristocracy (and, by extrapolation, our own) are as artificial and contrived as a melodrama performed on a stage. Indeed, what is society except a stage upon which the audience and actors are one and the same? Embassy ball or Perils of Pauline — it’s also just entertainment … though one has real-world consequences.
Anna is one of literature’s most enduring tragic figures, a woman whose defiance of social norms eventually leads to her own undoing. ”She did worse than break the law,” snipes one matron, “she broke the rules.” That’s a thought-provoking and smart distillation of the story’s themes, which are not dissimilar to those of a novel a century older, Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although the villainous Mme. de Merteuil is seen as less sympathetic than poor Anna (though just why, I’m not so certain). The story is meaningful and the book a classic.
But Wright and Stoppard have mucked it up somewhat with their artifice. The film starts on a stage with false-front sets and obvious scene changes, much like a filmed play; that technique is never fully abandoned, however, and it’s never clear why, especially once its point becomes repetitive — and more confusingly, after numerous detours into realism.
Were they just trying to save money on location filming?
Ultimately, it matters little. Aside from the woozy loveliness of Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as Vronsky), the comedic bravado of Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky and the kind of costumes for which Oscars were invented, it’s a dull, sleepy-eyed affair that grows tiresome quickly. By the end, if Anna hadn’t jumped under the train, I was ready to push her.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 16, 2012.
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