film review: Anna Karenina (2012)

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film review: Anna Karenina (2012)

For a flowery film there should be a flowery review. I know I’ve said I don’t do these but… when needs must.

Lavish, luscious, sumptuous, opulent… these are all words you could use to describe Joe Wright’s new take on Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina 2012 posterAnna Karenina is, of course, based on the Leo Tolstoy novel of the same name. Hailed by some as the “greatest novel ever written” Wright has taken on this oft adapted Imperial Russian epic and made it his own.

Teaming again with his favourite leading lady, Keira Knightley, he conjures for us a theatrical and intricate conceit for his re-telling of the love affair of Anna Karenina, wife of a Russian stateman, and the young cavalry man, Count Vronsky.

And rather a grand affair it is. With a twist and a flourish, Wright has set his Anna Karenina on stage. A bold move aided no doubt by the screenplay author, acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard. In some ways it may seem like a slightly clumsy parallel, staging a story set in a theatrical and melodramatic society literally in a theatre… but it’s one that I think they get away with. They don’t draw on the staging to highlight particular aspects, it’s entwined in the telling of the thing.

Personally, I cannot find fault in the creation of Wright’s production. Brocade to backdrop, waltzes to wagon stages, the artistic design of the film is quite simply stunning. Awe inspiring. This alone is a reason to see Anna Karenina. I have never seen a film quite like this before… though, given the slightly musical nature of a few of the scenes, some will undoubtedly be put in mind of Baz Luhrmann. It’s not that I don’t see it but I wouldn’t be sure he was going for that. In any case, I would be remiss to not mention it.

Other critics will say that Wright has chosen style over substance. I disagree, though I would put stock in the fact that this is such a highly regarded story, adapted by such a highly regarded writer. Without such a strong base of source material to draw on, the plot could easily have been overshadowed by the production. As it is, that story of a woman torn between her passion and what society expects of her propels us through the film, despite the elaborate switching between reality and surreality.

Where we do get slightly lost is in the balance of the plot. I appreciate that the original novel is weighty tome and one is likely loathe to cut it too much, especially if they’re inclined to leave in the novel’s counter point stories. However, it felt to me as though they either left too little in for some character or left too little out. Not that it ever approached jarring but at times I had cause to wonder whether certain characters were really necessary. They could have been dispensed with or built upon but left as they were, their stories were a little unsatisfying.

And if this is a stage play what of the ACTING. Fortunately, the theatre of the setting is not matching by melodrama from the players. Keira Knightley reminds us that she was born to play parts which require crinoline while Aaron Taylor-Johnson manages to acquit himself relatively admirably. Jude Law and Domhnall Gleeson deserve particular mention in their small roles, no dailing it in, while Emily Watson and Ruth Wilson also deserve highlight for theirs.

Ultimately, I think this is a remarkable adaptation, almost as successful as Wright’s Atonement was before. As someone who generally has no interest in war or period drama, I have been surprised twice now by Wright’s feats. Too often you’ll see a director merely tell the story again on a big screen. Wright is a director who manages to use the medium of film to enhance, if not elevate, the novels he adapts.

A rare achievement indeed.


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