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Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Released 7 September 2012
Director Joe Wright

Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson
Writer(s) Tom Stappard

Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
Origin United Kingdom, France
Running Time 126 minutes
Genre Drama
Rating 12A

A beautiful tale of woe.

Director Joe Wright has, in the past decade, established himself as the creator of such visually beautiful films that a collective sigh of relief was audible from the mouths of dainty dilettante when it was announced that he was to interpret Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for the big screen. The strength of nineteenth-century Russian literature for me lies not in its sympathetic portray of agrarian life in a huge country with a large disparity between rich and poor but in the quality of its descriptive analysis of inanimate things and places. Luxe fabrics, sparkling jewels, berry-toned lips, frost bitten cheeks and samovars with rusted steam vents all abound from the pages of Tolstoy's story of a fallen woman. Little wonder then that Joe Wright, creator of visual feasts like 2005's Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (2007), was attracted to the idea of interpreting such a rich classic.

Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is the beautiful wife of duty-bound statesman Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (Jude Law), twenty years her senior. Whilst on a trip to Moscow to sort out the marriage affairs of her rambunctious elder brother "Stiva" Oblonsky (MacFadyen) she makes the acquaintance of her travelling-companion's son the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). Like the train where Anna ultimately meets her fate, the wheels of her downfall are set in motion as soon as their eyes meet. Vronsky is young, passionate and exciting and Anna, bored of her pious and stiff husband, embarks on a wild and highly improper affair. Shunned by St. Petersburg society Anna ultimately decides to leave her husband and young son and live with Vronsky but the blissful existence she imagined is marred by her paranoia and anxiety that Vronsky will leave her for another.

A stroke of genius on Wright's part was to hire revered playwright Tom Stoppard as his screenwriter. With his influence Wright has centred his film in and around the environs of a theatre. An unusual move and one which has already divided critics but one which, I believe, was a masterstroke. The theatre serves as a useful metaphor for the dramatic qualities of the story-it is the cage in which Anna is trapped, bound by the social niceties of the day. Our window to the outside world is only in moments of unfettered emotion-such as the parallel storyline of shy countryman Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his love for pretty Kitty (Alicia Vikander) which unfurls mostly outside the oak-stained panels of the theatre-pure and unbound by convention as it is. There are some Wright 'trademarks' in Anna Karenina which can be seen in his other movies heretofore. The lingering shot of hands touching-a conveyance of passion in a misleadingly innocent gesture-is again evident here as is the use of an innocuous melody hummed by either a housemaid (as in Pride & Prejudice) or a Russian peasant (as in Anna Karenina) as they meander through the action; a surprisingly pleasant and effective way of linking scenes.

Macfadyen provides many of the lighter moments in this film, his corpulent person and endless pursuit of women lend him an exuberant quality which comes as almost a welcome relief amongst the downtrodden and woebegone state of his companions. Kelly MacDonald as Oblonsky's much put upon wife Dolly is equally excellent whilst Domhnall Gleeson is revelatory as the passionate landowner who refreshingly puts love above all else. It is however Jude Law as the proprietous Karenin and Knightley acting in flagrante delicto that out-act all else. It is a pleasing return to form for Law who floundered in the years post The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)-the very stiffness and restrained emotion of Karenin is reflected in his methodical approach to the marital bed, the slow enunciated manner of his speech and the sober colours of his waistcoats. Knightley once again rises to the occasion for Joe Wright-channelling Anna in her passionate wild-eyed glances, her terse responses to her husband inquiries and her unadulterated hair-tearing descent into depression. The chemistry between Knightley and Johnson is however sadly non-existent. It is hard to believe that Anna, a wealthy married mother of one, would fall so desperately in love with a 'boy' whose blond tresses threaten to have the same effect as Colin Farrell's blond do in Alexander (2004). Johnson, so compelling in Nowhere Boy (2009), is unfortunately miscast here-a rare mistake on Wright's part. Nevertheless Anna Karenina is a sumptuous, rich and very good film and whilst in hindsight it may not prove to be Wright's magnum opus then it is at least one that he can proudly lay claim to.

- Louisa McElwee