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Film review: Anna Karenina *
Good films are all alike; every bad film is bad in its own way. It’s a cute idea – echoing the famous opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – but probably inaccurate. The sad truth is that most bad films are bad in exactly the same dull, uninspired way – which is why this new version of Anna Karenina is so notable. I dislike the film, but it’s hard to begrudge those who like it (it got excellent reviews); it’s ambitious, original and tries for something imaginative. It’s also a mess, a half-baked farrago of bad ideas (and a couple of good ones).
Chief among the bad ideas is the theatrical conceit of having the film unfold on a stage – though not consistently, or even very frequently. We open on a curtain going up, then comes a parade of short scenes, among them a glimpse of Keira Knightley (as Anna Karenina) getting dressed. Later on, a cardboard backdrop opens up to reveal a vast snowy vista, a restaurant set changes to a drawing-room set, and racehorses charge across the stage. On the other hand, the actual filming is never theatrical (as it was, for instance, in Olivier’s Henry V, another film that started stagy then ‘opened up’ to become cinematic). The camera never feels like it’s sitting in the back row of the stalls; we have close-ups right from the beginning, so the theatrical gimmick never really sticks – and of course there’s no reason why Anna Karenina should be treated as if it were a play, unless director Joe Wright is making a point about the artificiality of 19th-century high society.
Maybe he is. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard cut the book to shreds (that opening line goes, for a start) but they do find time for Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the Tolstoy-like aristocrat whose story runs parallel with Anna’s – and Levin’s story is a quest to escape high society and embrace “living simply” in the country. He’s all about ‘pure’ love, implicitly contrasted with Anna’s impure love (in a word, lust) for Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) which lures her to betray her loving husband (Jude Law as Karenin) and finally destroys her. But this is where the film hits a snag, because it also seems intent on censuring society for censuring Anna. “The laws are made by husbands and fathers,” we’re informed, and of course men (like Anna’s brother) are allowed to be unfaithful, only women are punished. “She broke the rules,” says a respectable matron icily.
Can you have it both ways? Can the film be about Anna’s foolish, misguided passion, yet also censure those who’d suppress that passion? Again, the operative word here is ‘half-baked’. There are no set rules about adapting a classic – but you need a strong vision, whereas Wright is a filmmaker with a magpie sensibility; he likes to try things out, not really caring how they all fit together. Atonement felt like three different films, and Hanna was another mess – though Hanna was at least entertaining. This one’s a slog, not least because the actual romance – the human drama – gets flattened out.
Knightley, a limited actress, is inadequate as Anna, though the character as written is a hodgepodge: she starts off sensible, gets swept away, then turns morbid and depressive, then seems to court confrontation. Love is irrational, of course, and makes people do crazy things, but there still ought to be some kind of through-line (at least in a movie). The affair with Vronsky barely registers; they make love in close-up, then go on a picnic and canoodle, all in white, on a white sheet – but Vronsky’s a cartoon, the Great Seducer with thin moustache, blond curly hair and a languid look in his eye as he takes a slow puff on a cigarette. Law makes something of Karenin, the frighteningly rational husband (“I have no right to enquire into your feelings”), but in fact he’s another cartoon, with his intellectual’s glasses and constipated courtesy.
There are striking details: the flutter of a lady’s fan as she watches a horse-race blends into the sound of the galloping hooves; couples stand frozen on the dance floor, unfreezing as Anna and Vronsky pass by (as if thawed by the heat of their passion). At least two scenes are played consciously (and self-consciously) as musical numbers. Anna Karenina is a bit like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet from the 90s, a stylish toy-box overwhelming a simple love story, but in fact even the style is erratic; I have no problem with a purely sensual version of this book (I’ve never read it, so I don’t come with preconceptions), but the rhythm is off and the pieces don’t match. Wright – who, incidentally, has dyslexia – likes visual effects, but his only motivation seems to be to take a classic novel and make it less ‘boring’. He’s like the Countess, Vronsky’s mother, who believes we should never hold back: “I’d rather end up wishing I hadn’t than wishing I had”. When it comes to Anna Karenina, I wish he hadn’t.
DIRECTED BY Joe Wright
STARRING Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
UK 2012 129 mins