Anna Karenina (12A)


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The Independent Culture

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.