Anna Karenina, 2012.
Directed by Joe Wright.
Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Michelle Dockery, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson.
In 19th century Russia, Anna Karenina begins a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.
Anna Karenina is an adaptation of the classic novel by Leo Tolstoy (of War and Peace fame). Originally written in serial format from 1873 to 1877, it has been adapted into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love) and directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement). It also reunites Wright, for the third time, with actress Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean) cast in the lead role as Anna.
Set amongst Russian high society in 1874, the film explores the theme of love: between a husband and wife, parents and children, siblings and between lovers. The focus is on Anna Karenina, the wife of Alexei, a pious, cold, yet kind politician (played by a glum, balding Jude Law from Cold Mountain) as she engages in a scandalous affair with a dashing cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson; Kick-Ass), which leads to her eventual and inevitable downfall.
At first glance, it’s a typical period drama along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre with its focus on social elites, lavish costumes, glamorous balls and landscapes, and whatever society dictates is proper behaviour.
What separates it from being a typical drama is its engaging style of presentation. Rather than recreating 19th century Moscow and St Petersburg, the film is set within a dilapidated theatre. Backdrops are lowered and raised as characters walk in, gangways are used as Moscow’s streets, and stage hands serve as peasants. Ropes, sandbags and lights are clearly on display, with no attempt to try and disguise the fact that events are taking place within a theatre. It provides several benefits to Wright: it adds a theatricality and eccentricity to proceedings and creates energy in the film as sets and locations revolve around the actors, while providing pace and fluidity to scene progression.
A gimmick? Perhaps. A cost-cutting measure? According to Knightley. Pointless? Not at all. It heightens the film as a whole, making it more engaging and original. It is at times distracting, but it serves a very important function.
The fake, staged, theatrical presentation reminds the audience that what is happening is fake, and that is the entire point of Stoppard’s screenplay. Stoppard’s version of Anna Karenina is a good companion piece to Parade’s End, the BBC drama also written for the screen by Stoppard (see Liam Trim’s reviews so far here). Both are about love, propriety, and how society and propriety stifle and suffocate love.
In the film, things that are real and true and honourable (as decided by Wright and Stoppard), happen in the real world: Anna and Vronsy meet outside, have a picnic and make love in a forest, and when landowner Konstantin Levin (played with expert vulnerability and pathos by Dormhnall Gleeson; Six Shooter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) returns to work on his farm, this takes place in an actual field.
In contrast, the balls and parties of Russian society, as well as the offices and workplaces, are staged, fake, constructed and take place in the manufactured fakery of the theatre. This extends to the performances and actions of the casts: everyone moves in a practised and precise way, dancing through social situations and life in a choreographed and, above all, fake way.
The message is clear; this society is fake, so the values and beliefs it has are as silly and fake as the theatre in which they reside, but it is this fake society that leads to Anna’s downfall. Her affair only concerns her, her husband and her family, but it is the members of Russian society who punish her: their intense, jealous stares accuse Anna, and make her an outcast. In one telling line of dialogue, a princess explains why she is keeping her distance from Anna: “It would be fine if she’d only broken the law, but she broke the rules.”
Who made these rules? Who decided that Anna’s search for love and happiness were wrong? Only this society which is manufactured, fake and has no business in the affairs of real people.
This powerful and compelling message is well communicated by the film, but it is let down in a few areas, holding it back from being a masterpiece.
For one thing, the theatre gimmick is, as mentioned, distracting, and after the first act fails to maintain the same energy. The script also has a bit of flab, with characters going in circles over the same points in the second act: ten to fifteen minutes of the film could easily be shaved off. But the main problem is some of the performances.
Jude Law performs well, but has a difficult job communicating Alexei’s love and sadness despite his reserved manner. Taylor-Johnson puts in a great performance: he looks and acts like a classic movie star as Vronsky woos the ladies, and Wright gets in as many opportunities as he can to show off the lad’s physique.
As mentioned, Gleeson is brilliant as Levin, a young landowner in love with Kitty (Alicia Vikander, The Seventh Son). Their evolving and slow romance is a highlight of the film, as it feels very real and pulls at the heartstrings.
But the whole thing hangs on the lead actress. Despite it being very much a director’s movie, one in which Wright expresses great control and craftsmanship over every element, it is still called Anna Karenina and requires a strong central performance.
Keira pulls off a good job, and she’s a good actress, but not a great one. What I think she is, however, is a piece of set dressing, or a tailor’s dummy. I don’t mean this in a mean way. She looks great and she serves whatever purpose a director asks of her, but it is all surface, all presentation. Her version of Anna will be melodramatic at one moment, hysterical the next, depending on what Wright wants, but it never feels consistent or threaded together. And in those quieter, internal moments, she simply does not communicate the great turmoil and Tolstoyian tragedy within Anna.
Once again, compare Keira’s Anna to Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia in Parade’s End: both feel conflicted over their love lives and oppressed by society, but Hall has a greater range and is more engaging and mesmerizing to watch, even on the small screen. With Keira, there is a great deal on the surface, but little underneath it.
Despite this gripe, Anna Karenina is a success. Despite the length and melodrama, the style, visuals and craftsmanship on display will satisfy fans of period drama, and might even win over sceptics of the genre.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Graham is a writer and graduate. If you enjoyed this review, follow him @LukeWGraham and check out his blog here.
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