Anna Karenina is the latest production for Working Title the company who are best known for very British romantic comedies like Love Actually and Bridget Jones Diary. While more serious in tone than any of those films, this take on Leo Tolstoy’s romantic epic set in imperial Russia is still a quirky one.
What first strikes us about this version is the strange theatrical setting, it’s almost like watching a filmed stage production but with characters opening doors onto vast fields and farmlands. This is initially jarring and in combination with some zany over the top acting, provides the alarming possibility that director Joe Wright (Atonement) has turned Tolstoy’s classic into Moulin Rouge. Thankfully, this turns out not to be the case.
The theatrical style is a deliberate device used to convey the artificiality, posturing, unnatural order and restrictiveness of imperial Russian society; all of which have tragic consequences for the characters.
Keira Knightley plays Anna Karenina, a woman disillusioned with her marriage to the morally upright and emotionally distant government minister Alexai Karenin (Jude Law). When she begins an affair with the cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – who looks like a Sgt Pepper-era Beatle – she faces social ostracism from the rigidly conservative Muscovite social elite.
Distilling the novel’s eight volumes, with its vast array of characters, multiple plot threads and themes of infidelity, betrayal, social propriety and romantic idealism, into a coherent feature-length narrative must have been a daunting task for screenwriter, Tom Stoppard. He succeeds, though, in turning the story into an intense although at times slow moving melodrama. Cleverly, he manages to include but not over indulge the numerous supporting characters and sub-plots that project Anna’s predicament into a wider world.
As he did in Atonement, director Joe Wright renders this world with astonishing attention to detail as seemingly innocuous objects like fluttering fans and web-like veils allude to the characters’ situation and state of mind. Despite its stagy setting this is still a visually sumptuous film with vivid cinematography and ornate production design. A consequence of this very obvious artifice, though, is that, despite an impassioned performance from Knightley, we’re never completely drawn into Anna’s tortured world.
This adaptation of Anna Karenina is brave and exquisitely constructed but may not completely satisfy those looking for a classical interpretation of Tolstoy’s novel or an emotionally gripping drama.
Nick’s rating: Three stars.
Director(s): Joe Wright.
Release date: 14th Feb 2012
Running time: 129 mins.
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