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.
A list of new film’s to be screened in UK cinemas as of Friday 14 November 2014.
A list of the new movies that will hit UK screens as of Friday 7 November 2014
Director: Richard Curtis. Universal/Studio Canal/Working Title/DNA Films. (15).
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Duncan Kenworthy.
Writer: Richard Curtis.
Camera: Michael Coulter.
Music: Craig Armstrong.
Sets: Jim Clay.
Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Bill Nighy, Rowan Atkinson, Gregor Fisher, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Sienna Guillory, Rodrigo Santoro, Edward Hardwicke, Billy Bob Thornton, January Jones, Claudia Schiffer, Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards.
The love lives of eight very different couples in London are chronicled in the run up to Christmas.
Largely successful, Brit-portmanteau picture that could have been titled Luvvies Actually given how much of Equity’s register has been emptied to fatten up the cast list.
Right at the top of the bill (and that has never been an indication of quality in such star-studded pictures) is Grant as a love-lorn and single Prime Minister chasing clumsy new tea-girl McCutcheon. This is a gormless and charmless pairing, Grant’s aggravating, stuttering bluster by now a cliche, a cinematic short-cut of performance. McCutcheon is a chirpy ‘cockernee’ sparra’. Well, what else would she be? Her post- Eastenders debut was never going to push expectations.
Such ego-heavy productions groan at the seams with performers ecstatically trying to out act each other. Oddly though, the turns that stick in the memory here are those that don’t try too hard. Neeson trying it on with thinly veiled supermodel Schiffer (ignore the awful child crowing them on), Rickman contemplates a mid-life affair encouraged by nice friend Thompson and there is a heartbreaking threesome in Knightley, Ejiofor and Lincoln. The denouement to this particular thread of the story is literally a wrench, brilliantly and shockingly delivered by these actors.
There are still more powerful turns. In terms of comedy, Nighy and Fisher score most strongly in the entire film. They feature as a washed up eighties pop star and his long-suffering manager, trapped forever in a sexually unfulfilling bromance. Nighy is given one last shot at music immortality with a fairly ropey Christmas single. There can be no greater satisfaction for a cynical British audience, in this part of the story at least, to hear him refer (to Fisher’s horror) to Ant and Dec as “Ant or Dec” and note to their audience of largely under 15 year olds: “Kids, don’t buy drugs. Become a rock star and people will buy them for you”. This has to be the best line that Curtis has ever dropped into a motion picture screenplay. Thank you Richard!
For drama though, take a bow Ms Linney. One of the handful of visiting foreigners in this film, she can hold her head up high that, on celluloid at least, she juggles a difficult storyline perfectly as a woman trying to placate a mentally unbalanced brother and maintain the interest of horny Brazilian colleague Santoro. She deserves an Oscar for managing to keep her hands off him. This is the most impressive straight performance in the whole film.
Atkinson, who shares Curtis’ love of the extended similie and that certain Oxbridge humour (they both worked together on the Blackadder TV series) ties elements of the movie together as an obsequious Department Store sales clerk in some ill advised pantomime, but the film still scores because the humour and feel-good factor are nicely balanced with believable festive angst.