Sunday, 9 September 2012

Anna Karenina

Director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel Anna Karenina is one of the most visually stunning and artistically bold films I’ve seen in quite some time. Wright places most of his plot within the confines of a dilapidated theatre and has his actors make use of the stage, stalls and behind the scenes areas when forming the sets of late Tsarist Saint Petersburg. Actors will walk from one part of the theatre to another with sets and costumes changing around them, all with the hustle and bustle of both a real theatre and lively city. It’s a stylistic decision which was probably met with scepticism by studio bosses and the like but works incredibly well to bring to life the characters which themselves are so wonderfully written by Tolstoy.

Anna Karenina (Keira Knightly) is married with a son to senior statesman and a man who is greatly admired and respected in society, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). Their marriage is typical of the society in which they live in that it was not for love and he is much older than she is. On a trip to visit her brother Prince Stepan (Matthew Macfadyen) in Moscow she attracts the attention of a young, rich and handsome cavalry officer called Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). After an infatuation the two fall madly in love but in a closely nit society in which infidelity is ‘against the rules’, Anna must decide which is more important? Her standing, child and image or true love.

Joe Wright was lucky in a way in that he started off with a fantastic story, written by Tolstoy. This was then adapted by Oscar winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard who handed Wright and his cast a beautifully well crafted script which despite its complexities, rolls of the tongues of the talented cast. I have never read the source novel and have in fact never managed to finish any of the great works of Russian literature (the names don’t help) so the plot was new to me. The themes of love, infidelity, trust and city vs countryside-life charge out of the screen and most are tackled very well. One area which I thought was slightly forgotten was the fascinating part of the plot regarding Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Levin is in love with an attractive and highly sought after young Princess, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). His tale of love, family, hardship and politics feels slightly brushed to one side which is a shame as his arc also points towards the social upheaval which would greet Russia in the coming decades.

The first half of this film was probably my favourite half of any I’ve seen in the cinema this year. It whizzed along thanks to the dialogue, plot and interesting design. The problems that I have with some period dramas such as dull ideas and duller characters felt a million miles away as I watched, transfixed with a smile on my face. The highlight of the entire film for me was a ball in which some of the central characters danced. This was a scene full of careful manoeuvring, examination and lust as the two lovers become intimate for the first time. Onlookers watch on as Anna and Count Vronsky dance a waltz to an ever quickening pace. Kitty watches with horror as she sees the man she thought was hers slip away. The dancing itself is beautifully choreographed and came as close to art as I’ve seen dance be. Due in part to the nature of the story, the second half of the film doesn’t quite live up to the pace or intensity of the opening half but is nonetheless interesting, dark and impressive.

There are three things which make Anna Karenina one of my favourite films of 2012 so far. The first is the story, the second is the direction and the third is the acting. Every single member of the cast dazzles here with not one actor giving a misjudged or poor performance. The standout for me is Jude Law whose mild mannered and restrained performance is simply incredible. He maintains grace and dignity despite having a terrible spell thanks to Anna and Law manages to convey all of his emotions in a similar understated way to Gary Oldman did with Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He also makes the audience feel incredibly empathetic towards his character. For an actress I’m not particularly fond of, Keira Knightly has somehow found herself with two excellent central performances in two of my favourite films of the year; this and A Dangerous Method. She feels like the go-to-girl for this type of role and is excellent although my girlfriend rightly points out that when she smiles, she looks like she’s about to cry. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also gives a good performance, despite comedy moustache, as the dashing lover. He is believable as the swarve and arrogant cavalryman but is outplayed by Law in later scenes. It’s funny to think that ten years ago it would probably have been Jude Law in the Vronsky role but he has matured as an actor in recent years and can carry off a character like Karenin with aplomb. Another standout is Matthew Macfadyen who plays more of a comedy character but plays it gracefully. Domhnall Gleeson is also superb as Levin.

Despite the great acting this is the director’s film. The style is so bold that at first I was worried that it wouldn’t work but to keep a city as vast as Saint Petersburg inside one theatre then having the rest of the world to play with outside the city was a fantastic idea which was pulled off with pinpoint precision. There are flaws, for instance it felt slightly too long and some areas weren’t given as much attention as I’d have liked (two contradictory statements I know) but overall Anna Karenina is a enchanting film and one of the best I’ve seen so far this year.     



  1. I must admit that I wasn't particularly interested having seen the trailer; to me it looked like it was trying to be like A Royal Affair (fabulous btw) but not as interesting. Your review makes me want to see it though, it sounds far more interesting than it looks at first glance. I'm assuming that the dance scene is the obligatory Joe Wright long steady-cam shot? It sounds ready made for it.

  2. I think the dance is actually quite a fast cut, multiple camera kind of thing. The whole film feels faster paced than similar films. I missed A Royal Affair but really want to see it. I would recommend this but have seen more reviews that were less favourable than mine.