Tepid Tolstoy adaptation
Self-avowed taker of chances when it comes to filming classics, director Joe Wright sets large parts of Anna Karenina in a theatre, so there’s no missing the point that Anna (Keira Knightley) is a woman defined by artifice. Whether it’s the unyielding social structures of tsarist Russia or Anna’s ‘open-book’ susceptibility to romantic passion (we see her reading a novel), Wright and scriptwriter Tom Stoppard show Anna as a role-player buffeted by forces beyond her control and comprehension.
As a structural and thematic lynchpin, Wright’s approach is undermined by his lead actress’ expressiveness and wilful performance. Knightley’s passion is not passive enough (both are Latin-derived concepts referring to endured suffering).
Just this small deviation blurs the distinction set up by Tolstoy to the other main protagonists: Anna’s misguided husband Karenin (Jude Law), her libertine brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen), the latter’s land-owning, soul-searching friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and, of course, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Anna’s smart lover and downfall.
All these men act out the dilemmas haunting Tolstoy’s view of Russian culture at the centre of which Anna is a void, a tragic foil for male efforts to reconcile the individual and society. Under Wright’s direction, this function is too often overlaid by visually sumptuous sets and costumes and drowned out by the clamour of social intercourse. If this was a calculated trade-off, it’s only partially successful.
Anna Karenina | Directed by Joe Wright (UK 2012) with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Starts December 6