”I’d rather live life wishing I hadn’t rather than wishing I had”
Today I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Joe Wright’s new film, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role, which is certain to be divisive with its unique approach. Tom Stoppard has been employed to distil Tolstoy’s weighty tome into something more manageable and his adaptation clocks in at a shade over 2 hours. Remaining largely faithful to the novel, Stoppard’s focus is on exploring different kinds of love, and so whilst the focus is mainly on Anna herself as she negotiates the tumultuous affair with a young cavalryman that sets her against her husband and the might of Russian society, he also ensures that the subplot featuring the agrarian Levin’s attempts to woo the object of his affections is kept in to provide a neat counterpoint.
Presented with a classic of literature and wanting to avoid predictability as far as period dramas are concerned, Wright’s main conceit has been to reconceptualise the whole thing in a deeply theatrical manner, literally. He treats the story as a piece of theatre, sometimes being played out in front of an audience, sometimes as backstage drama, but always with a defined fluidity and through-line. This exceedingly stylised and highly choreographed approach has a huge cinematic sweep which I adored, but it does soon calm down into something more measured and at key moments, it opens out with some breath-taking transformations. It is recognisably a Joe Wright film – the technically accomplished tracking shots are there, the sumptuous costumery and set dressing provides utterly gorgeous visuals – the cobalt blue apartment is just stunning, and the sound design is sensational and wittily used in clever transitions, like the fluttering of a fan becoming the thundering of hooves. But crucially, all this directorial flair is in full support of the narrative, never muddying the way, and a clutch of excellent performances.
Keira Knightley, whose work with Wright seems to bring out something special in her, is marvellous as Anna, her hauteur melted in the face of passion, her vibrant spirit still flaring occasionally even in the depth of despair. Jude Law’s cuckolded Karenin feels like a bold move for an actor so long known for his handsomeness but he pulls it off with the kind of dulled normality that is at once sympathetic yet undesirable. Matthew MacFadyen is hilarious as Anna’s bounteous brother who hypocritically gets away with murder, especially in the face of Kelly McDonald’s beautifully compassionate wife, and Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander bring a most touching depth of feeling to their faltering courtship as Levin and Kitty, the scene in which they finally declare their true feelings is one of the most romantic things I’ve seen all year.
I knew there’d be some good theatrical spots in here but I wasn’t quite ready for the level we got. Nick Holder, Michelle Dockery, Henry Lloyd Hughes, Max Bennett, James Northcote, Kyle Soller all pop up momentarily, as does Claire Greenway which was a nice surprise too. And such is the quality of the minor supporting cast that it is difficult not to feel a little hard done by to only get one scene of Shirley Henderson or get such limited play from the likes of Emily Watson and Olivia Williams, who both do a great line in firm disapproval towards Anna. Ruth Wilson gets a decent bite of the cherry though as Princess Betsy, whose simpering flightiness masks a steely inner core and a delicious sense of entitlement – that poor puppy!
So a gorgeous feast for the eyes – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography alone is worth it in the luscious dance sequences – which delights in the heady whirl that it creates. It doesn’t quite reach the tragic depths that it possibly could do, mainly due to Aaron Johnson’s Vronsky who captures the tautly-buttocked rockstar charm of an illicit lover but convinces less as a genuine soulmate for Anna, especially in the later scenes. But the strength of the other performances, especially Knightley’s, and the intelligence with which this adaptation has been cinematically theatricalised made it a pleasure to watch.