Anna Karenina

Fri, Sep 7, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Oskar McNamara, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson 12A cert, general release, 126 min

Climb on board for a gorgeous, risky take on the classic Russian novel, writes DONALD CLARKE

IT IS, WE TRUST, not giving too much away to say that Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has a great deal to do with trains. That vehicle offers us an irresistible metaphor for Joe Wright’s risky, gorgeous, unsentimental take on the most psychologically alert of 19th-century novels. If you chose to climb on board, you will be carried along at enjoyable pace. If you fail to make it into the carriage, you will feel furious, excluded and confused. In short, the picture is set to divide opinion.

Long before the English director rose to fame with Atonement and Pride Prejudice, he spent time honing skills at his parents’ puppet theatre in Islington. That experience seems to have inspired his decision to stage large parts of this project in an elaborate Victorian theatre. Characters open doors and find themselves gazing out into the auditorium. The foyer doubles as the entry hall to an array of elegant buildings. In one particularly expressionistic outbreak, an entire race meeting is staged in and around the proscenium.

For all the archness on display, this Anna Karenina feels as emotionally sincere as any previous adaptation. It helps that Wright has cast the film with such care and imagination. Keira Knightley, always at her best for this director, doesn’t have the greatest range – the two octaves run from fragile to neurotic – but, when safely within those confines, she is capable of eating the screen raw.

Knightley does very nicely as the Russian enigma, wife to a boring technocrat, who embarks on a ruinous affair with a glamorous but insubstantial army officer and brings social Armageddon crashing round her ears.

Knightley and director draw out the most capricious, most flinty aspects of Anna’s personality and, as a result, deliver a film that, though true to the book, may repel viewers expecting a three-hankie romance. No character gets a free ride from Tom Stoppard’s economic adaptation.

It says something about the odd progress of Jude Law’s career that, rather than appearing as Vronsky, the suave lover, he finds himself excelling as Anna’s flawed, oily, unattractive husband. One of the year’s key cinematic images will surely turn out to involve Alexei Karenin’s near-religious cradling of a rudimentary reusable prophylactic.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is callow as Vronsky. Matthew Macfadyen’s is hilariously bluff as Anna’s brother. Purists may argue that Domhnall Gleeson is a little slight to play Levin (an unmistakable version of the young Tolstoy) but our busiest actor makes a touchingly fleshy naïf of the idealistic young landowner. Far from being a stray subplot, Levin’s adventures form the moral spine of Tolstoy’s panoramic story.

The scenes involving Levin also offer a few clues as to what Wright is up to with the theatrical staging. For the most part, Gleeson’s scenes are shot on location in relatively naturalistic style. He is attuned to nature and has little interest in the machinations of big-city society. By way of contrast, the courts, crush bars and salons of St Petersburg swarm with people who feel themselves constantly on display. The film’s visual conceit reminds us that these people were never really off the stage. Their lives were unbroken, formalised performances.

The convention also sets Wright free to experiment. At its very best, Anna Karenina comes across as a weird cousin of Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes. Seamus McGarvey, Oscar-nominated for Wright’s Atonement, allows gorgeously regal reds and crisp blues to seep across the lavish frame. A roof parts to reveal fireworks in the night sky. A ballroom sequence mutates into a freakish ballet.

For all this extravagance, however, Wright and Stoppard never allow focus to shift from the central romance. The film may not be the most moving version of the story, but it has more forward momentum than any previous adaptation.

None of which is to deny that many people will loathe it.

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