Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Anna Karenina

2012. Dir: Joe Wright. Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. ●●●●○

We are now approximately 70% of the way through the 2012 and it is inevitable that a number of the Academy Award players have already seen the inside of cinemas. Whether it's the spectacular effects sequences of The Avengers or the surprisingly strong performances of Magic Mike there are some films that get namechecked during the awards season. But over the last few weeks we have seen the passing of the Venice and Telluride festivals whilst Toronto is in full swing so the floodgates can now open. Every movie that opens in the Auntumnal months will be judged as a possible contender and it's safe to say that Joe Wright's Anna Karenina has become the first must-see of the season, and whilst I doubt whether it can win any of the big prizes (the style and setting may put off as many voters as it pulls in) it will certainly be a major part of the conversation.

I won't spend a great deal of time describing the plot of Leo Tolstoy's 150 year old classic, venerated by literary circles and adapted to the screen on dozen's of occasions, except to reiterate Tolstoy's counterpoints two romances. The first passionate, uncontrolled, destructive between the unhappy heroine Anna (Keira Knightley) and dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whilst the second is more sedate, slower to build by made of firm foundations involving Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander). These courtships are inexorably linked, both in terms of their shared histories (Kitty holds a candle for Vronsky as the novels start) and thematically.

Tom Stoppard wisely realizes the importance of Levin's story and retains it (many film versions do not, hardly surprising that a 900 page novel needs some cuts to make it to the big screen) so we shift between the two pairs of lovers, and as one affair blossoms the other appears to wither. Stoppard rattles through the early plot developments, aided by Joe Wright audacious move to film almost entirely within a theatre, using the stage, auditorium, wings and fly rails to signify different aspects of Russian society and allowing scenes to flow into each other with sets, props and extras moving in and out of the setting. It's is incredible to behold, one moment Matthew Macfadyen (having a ball as incorrigible womaniser Oblonsky) is marching through his factory of paperwork stamping drones then a flurry and long pan later we're at dinner with Levin, diligently eating the diet of the peasant classes then suddenly we're at the Shcherbatskaya's watching society function.

The staging works to reinforce the artificiality of Imperial Russian aristocracy, the lives of the elite are constantly on display to each other, every gesture and action judged by the gawping onlookers, every reaction magnified grotesquely. Wright uses a number of cinematic and theatrical tricks, including choreography, perspective and Dario Marianelli's sumptuous score to guide the audience's emotional response, the ball scene where Anna and Vronsky first meet is electric, the horse race heart-stopping and Anna's final visit to the train station unexpectedly tense.

The only times we leave the theatre (apart from an ill-judged picnic scene between Anna and Vronky) is to Levin's country estate, far from the view of the baying crowd. It's a more simple world, where chickens grace his dining room not immaculate tableware and the expansive Russian countryside is gorgeously shot by Seamus McGarvey.

Keira Knightly is just the right side of virtuous for Anna, cleverly showing her all-consuming passion and her third act descent is devastating and acute. Jude Law meanwhile retains a dignity as cuckold Karenin, his actions, from the misjudged forgiveness of Anna to him banishing the mother from son seem both cold yet believable actions, it's a testament to Law's performance in that even when you disagree with his actions you understand his motivation. Gleeson and Vikander also make a cute pair, and I look forward to seeing them over the next few years as their careers develop.

It's a shame the production loses steam once Anna leaves Karenin, as the story slows down and Anna's jealousies and suspicions tangle with societies rejection of her lifestyle there is some interesting stylistic work highlighting the production design and portentous use of mirrors, but it simply cannot compete with the innovations of the first half and somewhat sags in comparison.

That said this is a near masterpiece and the first film of the 2012 awards season that must be seen. I highly recommend it to all movie goers.

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