When director Joe Wright lost the funding for his original production of Anna Karenina you wonder what he had in mind.
When director Joe Wright lost the funding for his
original production of Anna Karenina you wonder what he had in mind.
Given his trademark style of sweeping epic it would be fair to assume it
would have been a David Lean epic in
the vein of Doctor Zhivago. But, on a reduced budget, it becomes
clear that Wright’s adaptation of Leo
Tolstoy’s Russian tome has taken on something fresh, more regal and,
arguably, on a par in ambition to anything he had planned previously.
Russia Anna (Keira Knightley) is
married to political minister Karenin (Jude
Law). Traveling to Moscow, to
aid her cheating brother Oblonsky’s (Matthew
Macfadyen) ailing marriage to Dolly (Kelly
McDonald), she meets Vronsky (Aaron
Taylor-Johnson). The pair
embark on an ill-advised affair and while Karenin turns a blind eye at first,
he is soon forced to threaten Anna with an ultimatum; either cease her affair
or he will divorce her, causing her to be an outcast from Russian society and
unable to ever marry again, not to mention never being allowed to see her son.
Anna is a poisonous
character, kryptonite to anyone who comes near her. While Karenin might be a pious stick-in-the-mud he is
nonetheless a man of honour.
Vronsky is nothing more than a young, arrogant soldier, infatuated by
the concept of love before realising his mistake of sacrificing his place in
society by pursuing Anna. Meanwhile
Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) finds
himself spurned into action after his advances to young Kitty (Alicia Vikander) are rejected.
Adapting a writer
such as Tolstoy is no mean feat but in Wright’s hands you sense a whiff of
destiny. With his budget slashed
Wright approaches the film from the Shakespearian theory of ‘All the world’s a
stage’. Here almost the entire
film is set in a lavish theatre.
The stage and auditorium acting as the area of high-society while
backstage and outside the people of Russia beg and freeze, only able to bear
witness to the opulence within.
Wright grew up in his parents’ Little Angel Theatre and the effects have
clearly rubbed off, taking theatricality to wondrous levels of
perfectly choreographed scene changes, the rhythmic timing, the sensual costumes
and all the while never losing sight of his eye for the grandeur of the worlds
he creates. While Anna is front
and centre of society, she occupies the theatre, demanding the attention of all
those within. But as her mistakes
mount and she is talked of in hushed whispers, so her story takes her further
from the theatre, instead restricted to confined bedrooms or ice-cold railway
glides effortlessly around the stage, taking in the lavish detail he has
created to evoke a sense of hierarchy.
But all the while Anna is at the centre of this universe. Where most of the women wear pastel
colours she is draped in deep burgundy and black, always standing out from the
crowd for better or for worse. The
script by Tom Stoppard, no stranger
to theatre or its ideals thanks to his Oscar winning Shakespeare In Love, is as precise as the mechanics of the theatre;
finely balancing plots and themes in perfect harmony while always conjuring a
sense of dramatic reprieve just waiting in the wings.
As has been the
case with both Pride & Prejudice
and Atonement, Keira Knightley is at
her best when working with Wright.
His insistence to avoid the ‘naturalism’ of acting allows Knightely to
cut loose and here she does so to rapturous levels. Her Anna might be distained in society but we are always
presented with the tragic side of her, in Knightley’s hands you don’t always
like Anna but you do always understand her motives and desires. Jude Law has rarely been this good
since his early career. His Karnin
is stiff and proper but just when you think he has a malicious side there is
something in Law’s eyes that tells a different story, the story of a man aching
to do the right thing but knowing it will undoubtedly see him become a laughing
stock. Only Aaron Taylor-Johnson
fails to convince. His Vronsky is
nothing more than a young up-start, a man in military garb who you never feel
any real emotion for as he never expresses anything on a genuine level.
Perhaps half an
hour too long, nonetheless Anna Karenina is a stunning and visually inventive
treat. Despite confining himself
to the theatricality of the stage, Wright maintains that epic quality of David
Lean and in doing so sweeps us into a love affair so ravishing and poisonous as
to make your eyes water.
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