So this is largely a geeky kind of site, but I don’t get to the cinema very often and dashed if I’m not going to plough that furrow for all it’s worth. Anna Karenina, as you know, is a 950-pager by Tolstoy about a married woman who strays from the straight/narrow and Bolshevik agrarian reform. Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s screen adaptation errs largely toward the former. **SPOILER WARNING: I will be indiscriminately discussing plot points from the third paragraph onward. This will be your only warning.**
And a rather gorgeous adaptation it is: the whole film, save for a handful of Forest of Arden-style exteriors, is set inside a charmingly dilapidated Russian theatre, and the first half hour or so is a pretty remarkable show of cinematic sleight as the interiors change and waltz into each other and are deftly repurposed with a bravado that is irresistibly charming. I was no great fan of Wright’s previous work on Atonement, and I’ve heard plenty of negative feedback about his disappointingly broad P&P, but I’ve got to hand it to him, in terms of looks, style and sheer imaginative arrangement, Anna Karenina is as ambitious a film as I’ve seen in years. There’s a but coming. You can almost taste the but.
The but is Keira Knightley. This paragraph goes into some pretty Marmitean territory, so if you are a big fan of her oeuvre I understand if you skip ahead to things we can agree about. Knightley is pretty awful. In terms of this film, it might well be down to soft directing, a supporting cast that would make Game of Thrones weep with envy, a pretty but restricted love interest, or just some careless character development; but by this point I’ve seen enough of her work to make my mind up. Until proven otherwise, I’ve no reason to believe she’s more than extremely profitable scenery. I’m totally aware that without her, Anna Karenina has a quarter of the budget and is a shade of the glorious spectacle that made it to screen, but when a film has Michelle Dockery HERSELF in a minor role acting the living shit out of the eponymous lead every time they’re within earshot, something is amiss. Knightley’s reaction to the high drama is rote and inaccessible, and a character who should be decently complex comes off as a thoughtless ninny.
The film at large suffers from a lack of clarity about its leads, and we’re left guessing what exactly the pretty, blue-eyed and dandyish cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, aka Kick-Ass) sees in Anna that he doesn’t see in anyone else, porcelain features aside. Neither character is given much time in private before their meeting, probably as a result of the whirlwind opening passage, and it’s left to a rather intense dance sequence (which cribs heavily from a similar scene in Wright’s P&P) to suggest everything we get to know about their mutual attraction. Yes, that’s a very 19th century way of doing things, but when the rest of the film has such admirably modern sensibilities, to leave the emotional core so antiquated seems an odd decision. Anna’s drawn-out downfall and occasional, inexplicable optimism never really feel like a fully-realised human psyche the way several other characters do, and much of the material that makes Anna Karenina feel just a pinch overlong are down to her final few scenes in which the fascinating subplots and even the theatrical conceit fall by the wayside.
AND WE’RE BACK. Let’s talk supporting cast. It is incredible. First things first, Matthew Macfadyen is wonderful as the caddish Oblonsky, who embodies the inconsequential upper-class silliness and excess with a single twitch of his faintly ludicrous moustache, and whose pragmatism, boredom and – especially with the idealistic Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) – well-hidden philanthropism make him a surrogate emotional hub in the absence of the romantic leads. He’s the most human presence in the whole show, save perhaps the ever-flawless Kelly Macdonald as his put-upon wife Dolly, who nails every line with nuance and warmth in what should by rights be a one-note character.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned Lady Dockery and Ruth Wilson of Jane Eyre fame are superb as the princesses who rule the Russian scene with some pretty astounding fashion sense. Wilson’s unimpressed ‘hm’ as she leaves Anna to her ice cold and stolid husband is almost worth the price of admission. Speaking of whom, Jude Law needs a firm round of applause for a measured and unexpectedly sympathetic turn as Alexei Karenin, who in this adaptation seems more sinned against that sinning as he tries, rather blindly, to give Anna the life she wants. On the other hand, the fact that the strictures of hypocritical and self-destructive Russian high society don’t feel all that tragic is an worrying ambivalence.
Levin’s subplot in which he DEEPLY SYMBOLICALLY leaves the theatre set to return to his cabbage stew and peasant lifestyle in the sticks is almost too gripping, often feeling far better realised than the main threads. This is where the action gets awfully verité, where the awkward ginger neckbeard Levin of the court is replaced with the rugged auburn proto-Aragorn of the fields. Levin’s development from awkward doofus to kindly mature doofus is pretty winning, all the same, and Alicia Vikander is pretty, well, pretty as his pure-as-snow-or-possibly-wheat love interest. Their extended proposal scene using children’s spelling blocks is bloody painful though, even if it is followed by an unnamed character loudly blowing his nose in meta-commentary.
Outwith this… god I could go on forever. Spotters’ badge to GoT fans who spied Lommy Greenhands and Samwell Tarly, and I know I’ve left out a few great players but hey. Anna Karenina is a pretty great spectacle, a thoroughly witty production, and for the most part thoroughly enjoyable. Take a bow.