Handsome adaptation that doesn't quite capture the emotional depth of Tolstoy's novel
Scripted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright who gave us Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, this take on the great Russian doorstep makes the romantic and social machinations of its characters into a play-within-a-film, complete with curtains, backdrops, stagehands and an audience. Although it's not quite clear why. Certainly the flighty Mrs Karenin and her fair-weather friends are performers in a social drama. But this implies that Anna’s experiences of love and loss are but smoke, mirrors and pretension, and it’s a matter of little interest whether she lives or dies, let alone who she sleeps with along the way.
If Moulin Rouge! - to which this film will be inevitably and frequently compared - is deliberately a confection, in which affected emotions and self-delusion are part of the tragedy, this Anna Karenina doesn’t seem sure if its eponymous sufferer is a spoiled doll playing out ersatz emotion for the gallery, or a real woman for whom we are supposed to feel. After the birth of her daughter, we see her feverish and babbling – but with her hair artfully arranged on the pillow, Medusa-style. Does the stylisation indicate that her illness is a performance too? Or is this just symmetry for symmetry’s sake - a bid for the Production Design Oscar? When the pained intellectual Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) reacts to romantic rejection by taking himself back to his rural farm and joining his workers on the land, he gets a real physical environment around him. Why? Because his love is more real than Anna’s? Because real emotions are only felt down among the peasantry?
For Anna, playing emotional dress-up turns out to have devastating physical consequences: infidelity, pregnancy, social banishment, death. There just isn’t enough in the narrative here, or in Keira Knightley’s charismatic but rather low-key performance, to capture this shift, or to anchor the clever design fripperies in a realm of human feeling. Still, fans of lush photography (the great Seamus McGarvey did the honours) and gorgeous, old-fashioned theatrical trickery will have a nice time.
General release from Fri 7 Sep.