Simon Dillon reviews the adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel

Anna Karenina

First: a confession. I haven't read Anna Karenina. However, Joe Wright's recent adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel is something of a mixed bag as a piece of cinema. It has undeniable merits, but the more experimental aspects of the film ultimately come off as self-indulgent and pointless, undercutting much of the story's considerable emotional heft.

To start with the positives, there are some tremendous performances. Keira Knightley is very good in the central role of Anna. Although she plays a somewhat unsympathetic character, she is nevertheless compelling and convincing, giving Tolstoy's tale of a doomed adulterous relationship in pre-revolutionary Russia a suitably tragic edge. Anna's lover, Count Vronksy, is also well played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. A more positive romantic subplot that contrasts with the adultery is admirably performed by Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander (recently seen in A Royal Affair). Elsewhere there is fine support from the likes of Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson and especially Jude Law, whose nuanced take on the cuckolded Alexei Karenin proves particularly watchable.

The production is lavishly mounted, but my big issue is the way Wright has chosen to direct the piece. I understand the desire for a director to make his mark, but deliberately drawing attention to the artifice of filmmaking by having the film take place almost entirely on a theatre stage seems strange and somewhat pretentious, especially as he doesn't entirely commit to the enterprise. Presumably this was done in an attempt to focus on actors rather than the scenery (which we see changing at regular intervals like a pop-up book), but a couple of scenes later in the story are filmed on location rather than on a stage, with no apparent rhyme or reason. All of which begs the question, what was the point? It all looks very clever, but it doesn't serve any discernible purpose. One wishes Wright would either go the full Brecht (a la Dogville) or else make a more straightforward adaptation. There are one or two arguably neat homages to other romantic epics, such as a nod to the moment in Doctor Zhivago when the lovers first brush past each other in a tram and the electrical line sparks, but unfortunately this simply had the effect of making me wish I was watching that instead.

In spite of such difficulties, the story is such a good one that Tom Stoppard's screenplay manages to retain Tolstoy's highly moral insights into the truth of the human condition. In particular his comments on adulterous relationships, specifically how difficult it is to trust someone who has already betrayed one wife, are universally relevant. Furthermore, his piercing insights into fleeting romantic obsession versus love built on something stronger are a breath of fresh air in a culture that largely encourages people to live for the moment whatever the consequences. Themes of forgiveness and redemption are also woven into the narrative, and as an Anna Karenina newcomer, I left the cinema wanting to read the book.

In short: good performances, misguided direction. A frustrating mixture, but by no means a complete disaster. CR

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