09 September 2012

"I Don't Think My Nerves Can Stand Another Alexei at the Moment"

Well, Joe Wright's long-awaited adaptation of Anna Karenina is finally out and you could tell it was going to be something a little different when its star, Keira Knightley, has to go on the Today programme and caution that it will probably be quite divisive. Indeed, when I heard about the theatrical setting of the film, I wasn't sure I would like it, but although it was a little too long--not excessively so, given the length of the source material--I thought Knightley and Jude Law, playing one of the Alexeis, Anna's dependable but dull husband Karenin, were excellent and that Wright managed to pull it off.

Having a screenplay by Tom Stoppard definitely helped. Don't get me wrong--this version is still a tragedy but the script crackles with wit and dark, tongue-in-cheek humour ("divorce is one thing; dinner's quite another," Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) tells Karenin). Condensing an 850-page novel into a 2h10 film inevitably means that a lot of plot has to be edited out. The film sticks to the basics: beautiful, bored Anna falls for the handsome, arrogant Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), they begin an affair and then, this being the 1870s, it all goes a bit Pete Tong when she decides to leave her husband for him. The other main sub-plot of the film is the love story between Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Anna's sister-in-law's sister, and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), but these scenes always felt a little out of place and as though too much of Tolstoy's social commentary had been left on the cutting room floor. I'm really not sure whether we were supposed to care whether or not they ended up together.

Joe Wright's film is beautifully, luxuriously shot and I thought the theatre setting generally worked quite well. I enjoyed the grand ballroom scenes and Vronsky's race--also conducted on a stage with the womenfolk watching in the stalls and boxes of the theatre--was an impressive piece of cinematography. Toy train sets in children's bedrooms sometimes evoked the feeling of train journeys without a real train having to be evoked. And Anna and Vronsky's relationship is lush, sexy and hedonistic. Anna, usually seen wearing black or dark, rich colours, wears virginal white in the presence of her lover and they frolic and revel decadently in the Russian countryside. Less sexy was the sight of Anna licking Vronsky's 'tache, which, along with his bleached-blonde hair, makes him look more like a German eighties throwback than a Russian count. Confusingly, with his lighter hair, he also looks like a younger Jude Law in some scenes.

Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky is suitably arrogant but appears to be relatively true to his lover, despite her later paranoid fears. Law's Karenin is also very sympathetic--he is so desperate to do the right thing and to protect his family, that his own feelings about his wife's fostering feelings for the other Alexei usually come in second place. "My wife is beyond reproach," he says, when questioned about the growing rumours about Anna. "She is, after all, my wife." The Anna Knightley portrays is trickier to interpret. She isn't very likable--she is bored, lazy, selfish and stubborn--but nor is Tolstoy's Anna. It's all very well women complaining about the double standard of 19th century men being able to screw around as much as they liked whereas if their wives grow tired of them, they don't get the same luxury. But who can feel sorry for Anna who brings all of her own troubles upon herself and generally acts thoughtlessly? In a number of her scenes with Vronsky, she just looks bored and as though she is going through the motions. Even later on, when she is shunned by her former friends ("she did worse than break the law; she broke the rules"), and blames everyone but herself, it's hard not to just roll your eyes. That isn't to say that Knightley doesn't put in a good performance. Anna is a tough character to portray, given these aforementioned character flaws, and Knightley, with her cool, dark eyes and her Helena Bonham-Carter-esque mad hair, simpers and seethes exactly as required.

The cast list contains a number of other impressive names in more minor roles, who don't get nearly enough screen time--Olivia Williams as Vronsky's manipulative mother, for example. I loved Dario Marianelli's beautiful, haunting score for another Joe Wright film, Atonement, and I'm glad his work was featured again in his newest film. And overall, I was fairly impressed with Anna Karenina. It isn't without its flaws, but the quirky setting, the sharp screenplay and the good performances from the lead actors keeps things interesting.

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