What Anna Karenina does well, it does extremely well. An exquisite exercise in staging and costume, the film is an haute couture parade of choreography and design so gorgeous that if it doesn’t collect the relevant Oscars next February, I’ll eat my beautifully millinered, tragic Russian hat.
For those unfamiliar with the novel and its on-screen adaptations, Anna Karenina tells the story of its titular protagonist, a beauty married to a staid older man, whose eye is turned by the handsome young Count Vronsky. Transgressing social order, the pair embarks on an indiscreet affair that unseats Anna’s position in society and ultimately, well… let’s just say it doesn’t end with dancing and rainbows.
Concurrent to Anna’s affair runs the story of her brother’s marital infidelities, and of earnest young moralist Levin, a landowner attempting to win the love of society belle Kitty. (If memory serves, there’s also a fair amount of stuff about pre-Bolshevik agricultural policy, which screenwriter Tom Stoppard has sensibly excised from this adaptation.)
Wright’s vision foregrounds the contrivance and claustrophobia of urban 19th century aristocratic life using theatre as metaphor. The lives of Anna (Keira Knightley), her husband (Jude Law) her lover (Aaron Johnson), and brother (Matthew Macfayden) are a public performance made in front of a gasping, gossiping and tittering society audience, and so where better for Wright to position his characters but on stage?
Instead of edits, the supporting cast changes flats and moves props, fluidly transforming a single location into a succession of genteel scenes. A knavish husband seduces his children’s governess. An angelic society beauty sits atop a painted cloud. Uniform rows of office administrators stamp papers in metronomic time as their boss sweeps in and out with a matador’s flourish…
It’s a thrilling conceit, and one – if you’ve the sea legs for Wright’s dizzily spinning camera – that announces Anna Karenina as being something rather special.
The film delivers upon that promise in every way but perhaps the most crucial: the central love story, that between Anna and young Vronsky, is hammier than it is romantic. Whether that’s a fault of mismatched actors, or the director being more head over heels for his film’s style than its characters is difficult to know, but it’s a credit to Wright that Anna Karenina’s other strengths mean it survives even without much of a heart.
One of those strengths is undoubtedly the appearance of Matthew Macfayden as Anna’s bon viveur bother Oblonsky. Kelly Macdonald is reliable as Dolly, Oblonsky’s humiliated but ultimately devoted wife, but it’s Macfayden whose comic, expansive performance lights up the screen.
Not that the screen requires illumination; it’s stuffed with beauty, not least that of its leading lady, Keira Knightley, who acquits herself very well throughout, giving an admirable and committed – if not always emotionally accessible – performance as Anna. Knightley, aided in no small part by Jacqueline Durran’s outstanding costumes, turns every scene, even the dripping mad ones in which she resembles a young Helena Bonham-Carter, into a catwalk.
As Vronsky, Aaron Johnson (part Lord Flashheart, part-Sergeant Pepper), unfortunately isn’t half so attractive as the wallpaper in Anna’s apartment, and the steamy sex scenes are something of a limp folly.
It’s a film that marks turning points for much of its cast. Not only has Matthew Macfayden come out as a talented comedian, Knightley proves she’s no longer an ingénue. In Anna and Vronsky’s very public courtship at a ball, Knightley is deliciously good as the experienced older woman, the black-clad Odile to Alicia Vikander’s fluffy white Odette. Jude Law too, emerges unscathed from his first “ugly” role as dull, methodical, receding government minister Karenin, done up like a curate in his drab robes.
When Wright eventually takes his camera out of the soundstage and into nature, the effect is a whoosh of fresh air, an on-screen translation of Tolstoy’s Romantic idealisation of pastoral life. St Petersburg and Moscow are artifices; only in nature does ‘real life’ occur, the subtext seems to say.
The impression overall is one of watching a ballet, and come to think of it, Black Swan is probably the last time such bold, bravura filmmaking and production design made its way onto the side of buses.
An effervescent, operatic, though admittedly at times, facile, perfume-ad rendering of its story, Anna Karenina is by no means a complete success, but it is all the greater for its ambition.
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