Film review of the period drama about an adulteress society woman in Imperial Russia based on the famous novel by Leo Tolstoy, starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and directed by Joe Wright.
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Director: Joe Wright.
Cast & credits
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster.
Writer: Tom Stoppard.
Camera: Seamus McGarvey.
Music: Dario Marianelli.
Sets: Sarah Greenwood.
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson, Holliday Grainger, Michelle Dockery, Cara Delevingne.
Russia, 1875: as Anna (Knightley) visits her sister-in-law (MacDonald) who is on the verge of leaving Anna’s adulterous brother (Mcfadyen), she meets in passing the dashing Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). He pursues her and, against the advice of her stilted and morally upright husband (Law), Anna embarks on a passionate affair that looks set to destroy the precious and thin social order around her. Contrasted with this, is Constantin’s (Gleeson) passionate love for the young and flirtatious Princess Kitty (Vikander), who initially rejects his proposal.
Tolstoy’s mighty, expansive novel about the nature of love, passion and societal expectations on all of us has been told many times on screen, most famously with Greta Garbo in the Venice Award winning 1935 adaptation (she also made a silent version called, with exquisite simplicity, Love in 1927).
I never finished reading Tolstoy’s epic tome; as a literary precocious teenager, I bought the book and waded through half of it before getting bored with chapter after chapter describing Russian agricultural methods in the 19th century. The Garbo version came on the TV at this point so I gave up on the book and instead wallowed in the ridiculously reduced Clarence Brown film with Greta’s face captured in the most wonderful and caressing of close-ups.
Anna has suffered more cinematically than she ever did on the page, presented in such solid but staid movies, each missing out on the passion she enjoys with her dashing lover and focusing on the cruel machinations of her emotionally frigid husband and an unforgiving Russia.
In this version, writer Stoppard and director Wright opt for a different take on telling the story, using a theatre’s stage, auditorium and back rooms as a framing device, a ‘play within a film’ so to speak, highlighting how the characters and the audience itself are always actors on the social stage that is life. Most of the action, including the house race, are played out here.
It’s a bold, innovative, beautiful and also wretchedly annoying step. Annoying because, at least for the first half hour of the film, it interrupts our enjoyment. As with a real-life theatrical production, it is busy, messy and noisy backstage as people and props whirl around in quick succession between the scene changes. Fun in one respect, but I found myself forgetting about the story being told and focusing too much of my attention on the construction of the film.
It’s also difficult with this Anna to judge the tone of the film. At one moment it appears to be a frivolous comedy, the next it lurches toward deep tragedy. Comedy and tragedy can sit next each other comfortably, but not when each is so extreme and the writer seems to favour a silly, laid-back feel in what is essentially romantic drama.
After half an hour, I would have been happy to walk away from the film, but then it finally settles into it’s stride and the tragedy begins to unfold.
Ballet, rather than theatre, is more of an accurate description for how the film is staged. The protagonists are in constant dance, characters whirl around each other as if in never-ending ballet. But there also moments of stillness (Anna, at the theatre is ostracised and camera pulls back, revealing the other patrons are motionless, staring at her). The dancing scenes are a clever mash-up of interpretive and classical forms, the dancers mixing a traditional waltz with flailing arms and hands which weave and wend with their partners’; it looks ridiculous and stunning at the same time, satirising the social movement of the period.
The accent throughout is on touching, fingers always reaching out for others, intertwined and delicately playing with child’s alphabet boxes. Kisses are held in extreme close-up, Anna and Vronsky’s tongues licking each other’s lips before a passionate coupling. In bed, Anna and Vronsky writhe in an orgasmic ballet and just as much of his body is revealed as hers. Anna is as close to pornographic as is cinematically seemly.
The look of the film is beyond ravishing. Words themselves can’t do justice to the eye-pleasing costumes, settings (the electric blue wallpaper in one scene remains embedded in my memory) and camerawork. In terms of production design, Anna Karenina thoroughly deserved its Oscar for costume design, but it’s a shame the sets and cinematography were only nominated.
The performances are superb but do not entirely deflect one’s attention from the purposely artificial presentation of the film. Knightley is delicate and impressive as a more morally dubious and selfish Anna than previous incarnations. Following this, Law is also more sympathetic and conflicted as Karenin. No longer the villain of the piece, he is actually more stable and constructive a figure, accepting responsibility for a child that is not his and sheltering her father.
See the official Youtube trailer.