Dir: Joe Wright
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
When Tom Stoppard writes the screenplay for a film, it is reason alone to sit-up and take notice. When the film is based on an epic novel by Leo Tolstoy and directed by Joe Wright, the man behind Atonement, Hanna and Pride and Prejudice, it is difficult to not get excited; especially when he is the person to get the best performances out of the star of the film, Keira Knightley.
Knightley plays Anna, the titular aristocratic “heroine”, travels to Moscow from St Petersburg, to intercede in her brother’s marital problems. A chance meeting with Countess Vronsky on the train leads to her first encounter with Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). From that moment on, her previously contented life with her husband Karenin (Law) and son begins to seem less idyllic; replaced by a love affair with Vronsky that spirals out of control. Levin (Gleeson) arrives in Moscow with the sole intention of asking for Kitty’s (Vikander) hand in marriage. However, he soon discovers that she only has eyes for the military officer Vronsky.Anna Karenina would be worth watching solely for Joe Wright’s incredibly brave and bold retelling. It requires a director of great vision to take Tolstoy’s epic romantic fable and set it within the confines of a theatre (which is particularly droll given the author’s enmity of theatres). Most of the action takes place inside these parameters, only occasionally spilling out for the story’s more touching and delicate moments. Some of the highlights include the ballroom scene (where dancers are frozen whilst Anna and Vronski whirl around the floor – reminiscent, in part, of Sokurov’s Russian Ark) and the horse race (which is a defining moment in the film). The choreography is incredible. At times, it feels like a musical without the songs (there are several nods to Baz Luhrrmann) and provides a useful overview of Russian Society in the 1870s.
Levin, Karenin and Stiva (Anna’s brother) represent the changing nature of society at the time. Only a decade after the emancipation laws and the lifting of state censorship, these characters represent the political, economic and social turmoil of the era. Levin is a forward-thinking intellectual landowner, Karenin a high-ranking government official bent on reform, and Stiva an encapsulation of the ruling class. You may not decipher this from the film, as it is not adaquately explained. Indeed, for a novel which embodies a collision between the old and new, it is badly served by Wright’s adaptation. He opts to concentrate on Anna and Vronsky’s great love affair and pays only scant notice to Levin and Kitty’s tale. Anna Karenina suffers in a similar way to Kurosawa heavily cut version of The Idiot. Whilst it’s not realistic to expect a book numbering over 800 pages to be sufficiently squeezed into 130 minutes of screen time, major events are cut, rendering much of what enfolds slightly puzzling to the uninitiated (such as Kitty’s transformation).
It’s hard to describe Knightley’s portrayal of Anna as anything other than a case of an actress being completely miscast. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of her best performances, but I cannot, for one second, believe that she is Anna Karenina; someone who is instantly loved and admired by both men and woman, ageless and glowing. She simply doesn’t have the ability to play this kind of character, and whilst she gives it everything, she lacks the subtlety and screen presence to pull it off. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky is stilted at best, with the scene with his horse (no, it’s not that kind of film!) being much more erotic than anything between the young lovers. Whilst most of the cast put in serviceable performances, it is the Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen), Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) and Kitty (Vikander) who come out with the most credit.
Don’t get me wrong, it is well worth going to see Anna Karenina for Wright’s lavish and brave direction which will blow you away. Fans of Tolstoy, however, should be prepared to bite their tongues at times.
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