Sunday, 9 December 2012

Film Review: Anna Karenina

The 2012 version of Anna Karenina on the big screen has been profusely advertised in France in the run-up to its release on December 5th, and so it's hardly surprising that the cinema was packed on the opening night with fans waiting to see the faces of Jude Law and Keira Knightley wrestle with the very definition of what love is or should be. This well-known pair was teamed up with rising stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Alicia Vikander in key supporting roles. So what did these four immense talents show us about this classic Russian love story, through the prism of director Joe Wright's (Pride and Prejudice; Atonement) interpretation of it? 

Although Keira Knightley is something of a love-hate figure for many, there's little denying her excellence as an actress. It's hard to believe that at the tender age of 27, she has already been in training for more than ten years, bursting onto the nation's screens in independent British film Bend It Like Beckham before storming into blockbusters such as Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean. Her co-actors have an equally star-studded record, between them appearing in such works as The Talented Mr Ripley, Nowhere Boy, and Gosford Park. Joe Wright and Keira Knightley are also known for their close professional partnership, having worked together on a number of successful period dramas. The stakes are therefore high, particularly as they all take on one of the mightiest works of Russian literature. It's a book that lingers for its strong characters and emotions that run high, and this adaptation also has plenty to live up to, thanks to the fact that more than ten adaptations of the novel have preceded it since 1914.

The story itself is specific to its time period, yet all-encompassing and timeless in its message: a young Russian woman, married to a much older man, ends up having an affair with a count her own age. However, once she has decided to leave her husband and go to live with him, she cannot live with the effects and consequences of her choices. Wright's version of the film (whose script was written by acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard) highlights Tolstoy's use of foreshadowing through minor characters, making full use of these as main events, and this contributes to the film's sense of building anticipation throughout as well as its highly successful dénouement. 

Even those who dislike Knightley normally are likely to marvel at her emotional engagement with the role of the eponymous protagonist. The real star of the show, though, is the up-and-coming 24-year-old Alicia Vikander, who plays Kitty, and in doing so proves herself as one to watch over the coming years. Her maturity beyond her years in her acting style is mirrored in Kitty's equally old head on young shoulders, making her an excellent choice for the role.

However, the characters and the story are occasionally detracted from by the strange setting of a stage, which is returned to again and again for various scenes (making it not quite a composite set, but almost). While at times it worked well (for example, during the scene at the races), more often than not it just seemed awkward, and although it had its elegant beauty, its inclusion was ultimately distracting and did not seem to be used for any good reason. The reason for its use was never made obvious to the film's viewers, with the closest plausible theory perhaps being that it is supposed to be some sort of Brechtian device, intended to remind viewers that we are only watching a film, and ought to be using the film's themes to reflect upon our own lives, not to become emotionally involved with the characters themselves.

Others also complain that in comparison to other versions of Anna Karenina on the big screen, the main character's complex personality is only superficially explored. Having not seen these other adaptations, it is difficult to agree in the same way, but ultimately I concur: the original text itself is hugely detailed and any modern film version is likely to be hugely distilled in this regard. Wright's version of this seminal work is therefore about as faithful to the original as it can be given the broad audience that it is trying to reach.

Nevertheless, in essence, Wright's film is a successful and accessible introduction to this classic Tolstoy novel, with emotions enhanced by Dario Marianelli's soaring soundtrack (which is heart-rending without being sentimental), the visual feast of period costume, and images contrasted by strong snowy landscapes. The negatives mentioned above fade into the background thanks to the accomplished acting and already dramatic storyline, and even if said negatives mean that comparison to other filmic versions is warranted, it ultimately makes the viewer want to rush out and read Anna Karenina in all its thought-provoking and emotive detail - or indeed even read it all over again.

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