Friday 7 September 2012

"Anna Karenina" (Moviemail 07/09/12)

Eyebrows were raised when Universal revealed the poster for its new take on Tolstoy’s much-filmed tragic romance Anna Karenina, showing Keira Knightley’s Anna waltzing with Kick-Ass boytoy Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky before vast carvings of the heroine’s initials. In retrospect, this seems less a PR campaign than a serving of notice. Joe Wright’s bold new version is the text as Peter Greenaway might have filmed it, playing out on elaborate theatrical sets which are redressed and reordered as required; but it’s also Tolstoy as produced by Working Title, which means it has the budget to push the experimentation yet further, and indulge the pirouetting camera and spectacle-for-spectacle’s-sake we saw the first stirrings of in Wright’s Atonement. To say this is a bumpy ride would be an understatement, but it may stand as the mainstream’s most radical rethink of the costume drama since The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The trains that pass through the source material have been hijacked by Wright and writer Tom Stoppard to serve as a remorseless means of time travel, allowing a director to cut from one zone of this set to another, his heroine to pass from a husband to her lover, and for Russia to speed away from its imperial past towards a revolutionary future. The steam they generate looks pretty, but their pistons are jolting and deadly, crushing more than one individual beneath their wheels. To transport us, any such film needs actors capable of ushering us past the heavy conceptual baggage on the luggage racks – who convince as more than actors-playing-actors. It gets some of these: Matthew McFadyen is unusually awake and puckish as Oblonsky; Domnhall Gleeson’s Levin toils soulfully in the fields; and Jude Law nails the quiet, seething hurt of the betrayed Alexei.

Crucially, this Karenina has Keira K., lending a patina of old-school movie glamour that helps one overlook some of the film’s failings. Knightley remains, perhaps, on the young side for the role, but she’s never been shot more adoringly or persuasively. It was Wright who first showed us the spirit of curiosity and self-improvement that lights up this actress’s beauty in the Austen adaptation; Anna Karenina is the film that reveals Knightley almost as those old von Sternberg melodramas did Marlene Dietrich, as a performer with the ability to switch something on and to look exactly as the film needs her to look, moment by moment, in order to sweep the viewer along with it. The same can’t, alas, be said for Johnson, whose blonde perm leaves him looking like Rudi Völler, and us wondering what Anna might see in this Vronsky, beyond ready access to a stack of Modern Talking LPs.

Not all of the film’s gambles pay off, then. It’s arguably a lively gloss on Tolstoy, rather than Tolstoy itself, interested in mood and motion over character or emotion; when Wright goes for the tragedy, abandoning his previous devices 45 minutes before the end, it becomes markedly less interesting as a film. But let’s give the filmmakers credit for taking those gambles in the first place, and for seeking to do something so nakedly unusual within the corset-like constraints of period drama; what that large audience who swooned over Pride & Prejudice and Atonement will make of it remains very much to be seen.

Anna Karenina opens nationwide today.

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