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Film Diary 2012: Anna Karenina
From the beloved novel by Leo Tolstory, adapted for the screen by Oscar winning writer Tom Stoppard, directed by the acclaimed - and diverse - Joe Wright, and starring his lucky charm (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement remain Wright's biggest hits) Keira Knightley, if this were a straight forward David Lean mimicking big screen swoonfest I think this would be the weepie of the season.
But, unfortunately - and also, oddly, fortunately - Wright and Stoppard have done something utterly audacious and completely misguided at once. This film sets the events of the entire novel within the confines of a theatre, albeit the most technically elaborate theatre you could imagine; at one stage it houses full size steam trains and at another a horse race takes places across the boards. Occasionally we do leave the confines of the theatre and escape into the real world, but, for the most part we are either on stage, behind the scenes or up in the rafters.
It's a conceit that manages its fair share of magic and gives Wright license to attempt some stagier blocking and choreography than if this were a straight telling; for instance, as Anna (Knightley) dances for the first time with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) the other dancers freeze in tableau around them.
But Wright's commitment to this stylistic choice wobbles at the best of times, and is almost utterly forgotten as the film plods towards its conclusion. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey works wonders under such constraints, but when - rather aptly - we follow Levin (a quite wonderful Domhnall Gleeson) out into the countryside his photography is utterly stunning; particularly one shot where Levin awakes on a bail of hay in a misty, early morning field.
There are echoes of Baz Luhrmann aplenty here, primarily of Moulin Rouge and Australia jammed awkwardly together, but, unlike both those films the cast - for the most part - are attempting quite restrained and naturalistic performances. Thus the lurches into elaborate movement sit at odds with how Taylor-Johnson styles his Vronsky the rest of the time, whilst Knightley never seems to get a grasp on how she wants to portray Anna, worse still the chemistry between the two of them is non-existent and when they suddenly fly into a clinch for the first time you haven't even registered that the two of them had met before.
The supporting players fair better, the aforementioned Gleeson does good work and the object of his affection Kitty, is played well by Alicia Vikander. Jude Law does decent work as Alexei, Anna's husband, earning far more of the audience's sympathy than Knightley. Kelly Macdonald crops up in a rather thankless role that involves her blubbing a lot, and her husband Oblonski steals the entire film thanks to a charming, blustering and witty performance by Matthew Macfadyen.
Ultimately though, despite the good looks and the strong ensemble, the key ingriedient isn't there. There is no passion, no emotion, no energy and fire between either Anna and Vronsky or Keria and Aaron, their scenes flit in quality from table-readings to ropey Sixth Form theatre studies productions.
If the film was called Levin Goes To The Country and pushed the Karenina's into a distant sub-plot I may have heart to recommend this endeavour, but as it stands it's a long, tedious offering which isn't buoyed by its extravagant style, but merely offers something nice to stare at in the background in the hope of it distracting you from the tedium up front.