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Anna Karenina - Movie Review

It’s safe to say you haven’t seen anything like Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina. The question is, is that a good thing?

Usually when a film is called “theatrical” it means it has a small cast and a single location; here theatrical means the film – well, around 90% of it – is staged as if we were watching a play. Not a play on a stage that could actually exist in a theatre: one where sets and backdrops roll in and out while characters pass in front of them for scene after scene, walking into the audience for crowd scenes, moving up into the rafters to talk out of sight of others. It’s all very impressive, at least at first. But does it add anything to the story? 

If you’re not already familiar with Leo Tolstoy’s novel or the numerous film versions, it’s pretty easy to get lost early on here. Wright’s swirling camerawork and emphasis on sets rather than story makes the opening scene-setting a bit of a blur, but eventually things settle down enough to get a grasp on what’s going on:  it’s the 1870s, and Anna Karenina (Keira Knightly), the wife of serious but highly-respected Russian bureaucrat Alexi (Jude Law), comes to Moscow to visit her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) and try to defend her brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen), who’s been cheating on Dolly with the nanny. Dolly’s younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is all excited about an upcoming ball, where she hopes the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) will propose to her, much to the disappointment of her other suitor, landowner Konstantin (Domhnall Gleeson). Bad news: Vronsky only has eyes for Anna – and soon enough, despite her husband and child, she only has eyes for him.

With all that to wade through it’s perhaps understandable that Wright (who worked with Knightly on 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement) wanted to spice up the visuals. Certainly once the relationship between Vronsky and Anna is established things settle down a little, even breaking out of the theatre and into the outside world when Konstantin, heartbroken after being snubbed by Kitty, returns to his farm. But it’s hard to know whether the increasingly subdued nature of the sets is meant to allow us to focus on the performances once the relationship comes into play, or whether it’s just because Wright has run out of puff. Charitably, it’s probably the former, even if it often feels like the latter.

The trouble is that after the whirlwind of the early scene-setting scenes, the film fizzles out visually just when the story – specifically the desire Anna feels that drives her to risk everything she has in the strict and ordered society she lives in – requires more on-screen flair. It doesn’t help that Taylor-Johnson plays Vronsky as a mildly aroused Dudley Do-Right, more stuffed shirt than man. It’s completely plausible that Anna would fall for a handsome bubble-head, but it does cut us off from what she’s feeling; if we can’t see what she sees in him, how can we sympathise with what she feels for him?

The scenes between Anna and Alexi are more effective, in part because Law can actually act and in part because his refusal to believe any of the rumours swirling around his cheating wife comes off as more touching and human than Vronsky’s robot passion. The subplot involving Kitty and Konstantin occasionally wanders off course – did we really need the scenes with Konstantin’s drunk revolutionary brother – but for the most part provides a useful counterpoint to the main story. Devotion to family, servitude and hard work pays off while committing yourself to a life of pure pleasure and sensation turns out to be somewhat less effective when it comes to preventing yourself from going under a train.

Knightley is the one that holds all this together. While the film itself occasionally seems to lose interest in the story it’s telling – once you’ve managed to stage a train crash on a stage complete with a man being torn apart, having two people talking in a room is going to seem like a let-down – she’s constantly alive, whether playing the strong, confident woman of the early scenes or the increasingly erratic and cruel person Anna becomes as she gradually realises the ruin following her desires has made of her life. Knightly grabs your attention in every scene; she gives Anna the passionate, intense life that the rest of this pretty but empty film sorely needs.

Anthony Morris

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