Adultery. It’s always made for some of the most delicious film, TV and book storylines (and, as a Chelsea fan, I can't say I'm a stranger to my player's committing it #trollface). Indeed, between 1873 to 1877, Leo Tolstoy used it as the basis of his novel, which he published in eight parts. Joe Wright, always one for a literary classic (Pride & Prejudice, and to a lesser extent depending on how much you rate McEwan, Atonement), adapted this 19th century Russian lit classic to the big-screen. After scouting across the continent for filming locations, he finally settled for the unusual, somewhat Dogville-esque of having the vast majority of the film filmed on a stage. The big difference between Anna Karenina and Dogville however, though, is where the latter barely had any set at all, with the locations and props chalked into the wooden floorboard, the set of Anna Karenina, whilst discernibly all a stage, is vast and opulent, with moving backdrops and richly designed interiors aplenty. The purpose of Wright choosing to having the movie filmed on a stage was because he said that Anna felt like her entire life was “on a stage”, and, indeed, the scenes where she faces society and stylistic touches are added (such as dancing couples freezing into a tableau whilst she dances with Count Vronsky) are certainly very effective indeed.
Performances in Anna Karenina are uniformly excellent. I remember, a decade ago, when Bend it Like Beckham first came out. It was a cute little movie about a girl juggling the pressures of her society and what she wanted, but one of the things that also stood out was Keira Knightley as the feisty friend who helps her get into a local girl’s team. It wasn’t the most polished performance, but then again, in Bend it Like Beckham, it didn’t need to be. A year later was Pirates of the Caribbean, where once again, she was appropriately spirited (her delivery of “you like pain? Try wearing a corset” is classic), but seemed to be continuing a trend of delivering solid, not spectacular, supporting roles as the pretty lady. Add in a few ill-fated turns in the likes of Domino, King Arthur and The Jacket, and the running joke amongst Brits was that Keira Knightley, though a pretty face (and a very beautiful one at that, something that is exhibited very well by Jacqueline Durran’s lavish costumes in Anna Karenina), wasn’t much scrub at acting itself.
Well, the era of mocking Knightley’s acting prowess is well and truly over, because she was quietly strong in Atonement, captured Lizzie Bennet’s playful cheekiness in Pride & Prejudice, and also more than up to the task as the crazy patient in A Dangerous Method. In Anna Karenina, she is excellent; I’d even go as far as to say she was awards-worthy. The thing about her Anna is, that not many viewers, reading the plot précis on the page, would have a whole lot of sympathy for a woman who voluntarily jacks in a comfortable marriage including a son she dotes on, all in pursuit of carnal desire with an admittedly dashing Count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who wouldn’t say no). But Knightley imbues Anna Karenina with all the elements of her character, not just the ~selfish horndog~. She is a caring mother, a loyal sister to Stepan Oblonksy (a serial cheat, played with humour by Matthew Macfadyen; some would regard this is a quasi-incestuous casting, seeing as he played Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, and that) and overall, Tolstoy and Wright would have us believe, not a bad person. I certainly didn’t think she was, and that is all to the merit of Keira Knightley’s wonderful performance. It is funny, because one of the things she is oft-criticized for in her acting (the way her lip pouts and her jaw juts out) is snuffed out for the majority of the film, and it is only when her affair with Count Vronksy sours that it re-emerges, yet, ironically, this quite suits Knightley’s acting and certainly helps convey the mad, irrational woman Anna is being driven to become.
The support is also terrific, save perhaps Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I still have my reservations about. Save his ridiculously obvious fake moustache, he more than looks the part of Count Vronksy, with his piercing blue eyes and thick muscular arms. But when delivering his lines, he comes across as a bit needy and drippish, rather than the potently sexual being that Vronksy is, and that Anna couldn’t resist. As such, it’s fairly easy to envision Anna turning him down, and one has to suspend some belief when Anna initially succumbs to her lust for her. Jude Law, on the other hand, as Anna’s stuffy, boring, but loving husband, is magnificent. It’s a thankless role, as the man 20 years her senior who sees his wife as beyond reproach, but his love and trust in her only stifles her further, but he delivers it with such subtly and nuance that the love triangle aspect of the film is appropriately murky in that I genuinely couldn’t take a side.
Then there is the subplot about Konstantine Levin (played by Bill Weasley off the Harry Potter films, Domhnall Gleeson) and his enduring love for Oblonksy’s wife’s sister, Kitty (newcomer Alicia Vikander, a very pretty Swedish actress). Whilst Anna Karenina’s love affairs are complicated in that she has two men to choose from, Levin is confused and increasingly antagonised by the state of Russia, and therefore it is his philosophies that hold him back. Some of his conversation with the workers in his father’s manor go on a little bit longer than necessary and certainly aren’t amongst the film’s most memorable moments, but indeed, this is a common criticism of Tolstoy’s source material; the love/sex stuff is ace, but the Russian politics bored even the most learned of literary critics. So we can’t fault Wright, or Gleeson too much for that. Furthermore, the Levin/Kitty romance forms the most emotionally affecting scene in the film; Levin, having gone away for months after his initial marriage proposal was rejected by Kitty, comes back to see her, where they speak wordlessly to each other using only cubes of letters; a sort of 19th century hangman/Scrabble amalgamation. As Kitty admits she was wrong to turn him down, Levin lifts his hands to reveal three simple letters; I L Y. Perhaps it doesn’t sound like much on the page, but on the screen, and with the earnest facial expressions of the actors thrown in, it really was a cathartic moment of redemption for Levin, one of the few genuine good guys of the piece.
Overall, Anna Karenina is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in the cinema this year, which is truly high praise for a 19th century set Russian love saga with not a car chase in sight. Joe Wright deserves much praise for his brave take on a literary classic and his cast more than step up to the task, with Knightley, Law and Gleeson all show-stealing. As with many other Focus Features films (Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardner, Swimming Pool), the film is a treat to look at, with its swirling camerawork and the set which changes in front of your eyes. Anna Karenina caused controversy aplenty when it first came out due to its depiction of infidelity, but in truth, there is so much more to the book, encompassing themes of love, life & death, conformity, femininity and individualism. In just over two hours’ running time Wright was never going to cover every single one of them, but the end product, like our fearless, misguided lead, is beautiful to look at.
If you enjoyed this post, check out Poker Blogs' review of 21!