Anna Karenina (12A)

3.00

 

Director Joe Wright has made a striking but perverse decision in adapting Anna Karenina to the screen. Who else would take a book, start the camera rolling, and turn it into a piece of theatre? It is a strange approach to adopt, like designing a car and then equipping it with a set of wooden wheels. You sense an ingenuity, but you wonder at the point – unless the point is to save money.

Its theatrical nature is established from the off, as a red curtain goes up on a proscenium arch and the old-fashioned cursive announces the film's title. Did I miss the ice-cream sellers and the PA system warning us to turn off mobile phones? The artifice is deliberately played up, to the point of sets being shunted together before our eyes, props carried on and off, a sense of busyness on the lighting rigs. In the first half-hour I don't recall one exterior shot. Even the trains, which will have a significant part to play in the story, are models. For the purposes of this movie the world – Moscow and St Petersburg – is a stage.

The drama follows suit. When the lavishly moustachioed Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) arrives at his office, the entire room of clerks are choreographed to rise from their desks in sequence; if it weren't for Dario Marianelli's antic oompah music it could almost be a chorus number by Baz Luhrmann. In the film's centre-piece, the state ball where Anna (Keira Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) first catch the fire in each other's eyes, the other dancers around them freeze in their poses, isolating the star-crossed pair. Then, heightening the mood, the film ups a gear with a series of whip-pans so frantic you wonder if Anna and Vronsky will fly wildly off the stage in a slapstick pile-up. This trick of theatre and film techniques fused together is very much the Wright stuff, a self-conscious bravura that looks impressive in the moment and rather fades thereafter. You have to ask: what's his game here?

Wright may be drawing on his own experience of growing up with parents who ran the Little Angel puppet theatre in Islington. Theatre is in his DNA. There may also be an echo of the framing device in his film of Atonement (2007), wherein precocious meddler Bryony put on theatricals for her family's entertainment. This time the stage is not an English country house but an actual theatre, with moving scenery, wings and gantries doing duty as a street or a skating ring. In their elaborate gowns and uniforms (the costumes are by Jacqueline Durran) there is a strong suggestion that the people are already dressed for the stage; and that aristocratic society in 1870s Russia is itself a kind of masque, with its own rituals and role-playing. Wright makes the point explicit by eliding the scene of a full opera house with the action of the story, rather as Louis Malle did in his Chekhov adaptation Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).

We are always reminded that this is a world of performance, of presentation, where every gesture and nuance of behaviour is being watched. The book's most famous set-piece spells it out, a race meeting (again, the theatre doubles as a grandstand) where the sound designer plays another neat trick of elision. Anna has gone to watch Vronsky ride, and the agitated flutter of her fan as the race comes to a climax blends into the furious drumming of the horses' hooves. The stunned silence that follows Anna's shriek of dismay is a purely theatrical effect, which made me wonder, not for the first time, whether Wright once intended this for the stage rather than the screen.

His technical confidence is never in question. Whether we like his effects or not seems beside the point; if Wright wants to do something, whether it's horses racing across a stage or a long tracking shot of a routed army (the Dunkirk sequence in Atonement), he'll damn well do it. He takes risks, plays with form, and you take your hat off to him. But putting Anna Karenina on film is more than a technical challenge; there must be an attempt on the cliff-face of Tolstoy's psychological portraiture, the amazing fineness of his perceptions and his skill in delivering emotional impact. An attempt, as I say – nobody can seriously expect film to approach the "Tolstoyan". Tom Stoppard's script is serviceable but undynamic, his style an approximation to drawing-room comedy in which lines are spoken with a laugh but never turn out to be funny.

The casting looked a problem just from the trailer. Following his Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Wright has again entrusted the central role to Knightley, and again she brings to it a museless competence. She wears the clothes nicely, and has a decent voice – but it's hard to get round the feeling that she's always "on", always reminding us that she's acting. She hasn't that self-forgetting capability of a great actor to encompass Anna's anguish, or her soulfulness. Aaron Johnson is callow and awkward and out of his depth as Vronsky, his boy-band blonde locks as distracting as the silly attempt at a cavalry officer's moustache. There just isn't between them an urgency of feeling, let alone the complexity, to convey one of literature's imperishable love matches. Jude Law, as Anna's pedantic husband Karenin, can crack his knuckles and peer moleishly through his spectacles – but little else. The most cheering presences are Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander as Levin and Kitty, the novel's other romantic couple, skittish and annoying to begin with, then playing a reconciliation scene via a child's puzzle that becomes very touching.

It's a handsome thing, shot in an aching golden light by Seamus McGarvey and silkily edited by Melanie Oliver. It absorbs and bemuses the eye, and in the anatomy of an unforgivingly narrow society Wright has made some bold, imaginative choices. But as to why Anna Karenina ranks as a novel, perhaps the novel, of the ages, this film does not give a clue.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering