Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Universal Pictures
Now Showing

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players." Acclaimed playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter, Tom Stoppard (for Shakespeare In Love) has seemingly used the Bard's words as his inspiration in adapting Russian author Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Never having read Tolstoy's classic, I can't say if director Joe Wright's film is a faithful adaptation or the definitive screen version (there have been several over the decades), but this Anna Karenina is definitely unique.

The bold and striking conceit of Stoppard and Wright is to have the action of Anna Karenina take place within the confines of a theatre; sets and lighting changes, actors both players and audience when required, and we see on-stage and backstage, and even up in the rafters. Occasionally Wright breaks through this fourth wall and takes us into the "real world" of the Russian countryside but for the most part we're in the artificial and cloistered confines of a playhouse.

That playhouse is of course metaphor for Imperial Russia where, in 1874, the aristocratic classes, although decadent and indulgent, adhere to a strict social code: a married man may take a lover but his wife may not; divorce will disgrace her not him. For someone is always watching, and if you go off script you will incur the wrath of your fellow players.

Anna Karenina opens with a flurry of activity as the affair of Stiva Oblonsky (a playful Matthew Macfadyen), with his children's governess, becomes known to his wife, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald). Stiva's not so much sorry but sorry that he was caught out, and enlists the help of his sister, Anna (Keira Knightley), to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow to placate Dolly and earn her forgiveness.

Anna, married to Karenin (Jude Law), a rising star in Russian politics, who knows it is Dolly who has been wronged but also loves her brother and understands how society works, has never contemplated an affair. That is until now. Arriving in Moscow via train (locomotives are a running, portentous theme throughout Wright's film, and anyone with a passing knowledge of the book knows why), she is introduced to the young and dashing Count Vronksy (Aaron Johnson) by his mother (Olivia Williams), a woman who would seem to have a scandal all her own in her past.

Sparks fly -- literally, as the train settles on the frozen tracks -- and Anna begins having thoughts and feelings she's never had before. And although married, and although it is understood that Vronsky will propose to the pretty teen princess, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Anna throws caution (and society's script) to the wind, beginning an affair with the handsome cavalry officer and setting in motion the inevitable tragedy.

I don't know if Tolstoy intended his novel as melodrama, but in the heightened world of the theatre, and as his heroine unravels, Joe Wright's Anna Karenina certainly becomes increasingly (soap) operatic.

Knightley, a muse of sorts for Wright having given two of her best performances in his two best films -- Pride and Prejudice (2005); Atonement (2007) -- becomes increasingly emotionally unhinged, though fabulously looking whilst doing so.

Not for nothing has costume designer Jacqueline Durran been nominated for an Oscar; ditto production designer, Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, and composer, Dario Marianelli. Each is crucial in bringing this artificial world beautifully to life.

Unfortunately, Wright can not do the same. What I failed to get from this interpretation was any great sense of passion between Anna and Vronsky, nor of the ultimate tragedy. Still, compared with other recent bold re-imaginings of literary classics -- Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights and Michael Winterbottom's Trishna (based on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles) -- Anna Karenina is never less than dazzling; there's always something to occupy your mind and your eye if not capture your heart.

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