Players: Joe Wright (DIR), Keira Knightley, Aaron Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew McFayden, Kelly McDonald
Having proven skilled at adapting Austen and McEwan it appears Joe Wright wanted to tackle more tragic, epic and quite frankly longer material. Cue Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
A beast of the literary world and a popular choice for cinematic adaptation, questions undoubtedly appeared as to the necessity of another. Clearly unperturbed, Wright not only delivers a mature and visually stunning interpretation of the classic, but one with a truly novel twist – its all set in a theatre.
Whilst this may divide viewers it operates on two levels; as a metaphor for how society is constructed and all its inhabitants performing roles, as well as a visually impressive narrative segway during set changes. Thus the ideologies behind Tolstoy’s 500+ page lament for Russian society resonate well within the theatrical setting.
The cast too are as exquisite as the setting. Keira Knightley as the seduced and thus condemned heroine is at her period drama best in her third pairing with Wright. A coquettish socialite beguiled by the attention lavished upon her by the handsome Count Vronsky (Johnson), she breaks free from the glacial restrictions of Russian aristocracy in rip-roaring, piston-pumping, passionate style with believability and ease. Something Wright forcefully emphasises with consistent train references.
Not short of talented male support, Jude Law as bald, po-faced and tediously duty bound Karenin is almost unrecognisable. Whilst the charming Aaron Johnson as Vronsky displays all the swagger, charisma and boldness first seen in Nowhere Boy. Matthew MacFayden is also worth a mention on scene-stealing form as Anna’s pompous and avaricious brother Oblonsky.
And yet for all its attention to detail, intensity and beautifully elegiac tone, one can’t help but sigh at the sheer length of it. Wright’s motivic repetitions; close-ups of character’s faces and coat-changing vignettes become somewhat tiresome. And ultimately the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic leaving you under-whelmed and perhaps as cold as the Russian landscape itself.
Verdict: Sprawling, slow-paced and slightly indulgent. Sumptuous settings, clever editing and terrific performances can’t quite match the flawless magic of Tolstoy’s novel.