Admittedly, there is something fishy about the mere idea of a Working Title Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role: oh no, not another luvvie piece of posh British heritage cinema! Thankfully, just as director Joe Wright had dusted off quite cannily Pride and Prejudice, so does he bring something else, something new to this take on Leo Tolstoy's classic novel of love in 19th century imperial Russia. It could be roughly described as "Ophüls does Tolstoi", or Anna Montès. 

     In short, following Max Ophüls' sleight-of-hand waltzes, Mr. Wright and playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard set most of Anna Karenina's action inside an opulent theatre where the camera swirls about as the theatre's décors change in front of us from a restaurant to a Moscow park. The metaphor, openly taken from Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage", is obvious: society as role-playing where everyone is ready and willing to play its part - except for Anna, banging fiercely against the walls of the puppet theatre she feels herself trapped in.

     Obvious the metaphor may be, but there's a certain grandiose (and very English) bravado in the way Mr. Wright (who has always had a deft hand with sweeping pans and never saw a tracking shot he didn't like) deals with it: by staging the whole thing as an elaborately choreographed social ballet, underlined by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's stylized dances, the actors, sets and camera gliding across the sets seamlessly, everyone swept along in a swooning arc of emotion. It's much better than it sounds like, believe me, since Tolstoi's mosaic of love both free of and tethered to social constraints is strong enough to uphold pretty much everything you want to throw at it.

     But by themselves Mr. Wright's bravura staging and Mr. Stoppard's measured adaptation might fall prey to shallowness, style over substance; such an approach rises or falls on its cast and it's there that the casting of Ms. Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson lets the side down. Both actors struggle valiantly with the demands of the roles, but against the obvious evidence that they're both too young to be fully convincing - Ms. Knightley is simply not mature enough to be Anna, and Mr. Taylor-Johnson is simply too boyish to exude Vronsky's man-about-town seduction. Intriguingly, the casting of such young actors does suggest an innocence about their relationship that gives an added layer to the roleplay conceit, but also undermines the parallel love story between rural landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Muscovite society girl Kitty (Alicia Vikander), whose own innocence and restraint is an important contrast to Anna and Vronsky's passionate abandon.

     On balance, with such a stylized staging, it's on the actors that falls the need to give heft, weight and empathy to the production - and if all of the cast performs impressively (none more so than an unrecognisably subdued Jude Law as the put-upon Karenin), it's clear that asking Ms. Knightley and Mr. Taylor-Johnson to anchor the film may be asking too much. Still, let's give due credit to a production that definitely does not go the usual posh heritage cinema way, shall we?

Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard, from the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey (colour, widescreen)
Music: Dario Marianelli
Designer: Sarah Greenwood
Costumes: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Melanie Ann Oliver
Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster (Focus Features, Working Title Films)
UK/USA, 2012, 130 minutes

Screened: distributor premiere screening, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos (Lisbon), November 29th 2012


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