“Anna Karenina”, or “Joe Wright’s Obsession with Kiera Knightley Part III” by Caitlin McGrane

Posted on March 15, 2013

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I’ll start this week with a quote: the Telegraph’s Tim Robey succinctly describes director Joe Wright’s styling of Anna Karenina as an “unashamed love of the proscenium. But did it need to be so arch?”  Am I the only one who is salivating over that? Okay, as you were…

It’s shameful how little Tolstoy I’ve read, given my love of all things Russian (hell, I even did it at uni for a few years). I really loved The Death of Ivan Ilych, and the parts of War and Peace I actually had to read for uni. But I’ve never gotten around to ol’ Anna. I know the story – married woman has passionate affair with young soldier-type. You know, that old chestnut. Despite all the gossip, forced-propriety and emotionally wringing on-screen, I actually rather enjoyed myself in Anna Karenina.

The extremely extravagant “Anna Karenina”.

The story opens with Anna (Kiera Knightley) forced to leave her husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) to visit her sister Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) and brother-in-law Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) in St. Petersburg, because Stiva has been shagging the nanny (I have just realised the hilarity of Jude Law in this film). While there, she meets the dreeeeeeamy Count Vronksy (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, not my aesthetic cup of tea, but he’s great in Kick-Ass; plus he’s from High Wycome – holla!).

There’s a good deal of chemistry between Anna and Count V, and they do some dancing that excites the attention of the nobility (sadly Taylor-Johnson looks awkward and uncomfortable). But Anna’s young friend, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), is hopelessly smitten with Count V too, and sees their passion as the ultimate betrayal. Which brings us, rather neatly, to the sub-plot: Konstantin Demitrivich Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson – BILL WEASLEY) ardent love for Kitty, and his desire to marry her. Levin attracts the disdain of the nobility for not wishing to live in the city, and Kitty behaves rather selfishly initially, leaving him distraught. He escapes to the sanctuary of his family’s estate, where his musings on life are beautifully complimented by a companionship with Theodore (Steve Evets – check him out in Looking For Eric) and a life toiling the land.

Tolstoy deals with big themes (fidelity, passion, faith, Russian society), and my feeling is that Wright rose to the occasion with truly magnificent set pieces, and the use of dance. There’s a lot of train symbolism, so if you know the story you’ll know what that’s all about. Robey’s thoughts about Wright’s use of the proscenium arch are actually spot on, but I don’t see that as a problem. Anna Karenina is generally regarded as an epic tale of love and infidelity; so it is fitting that Wright should use the stage as a setting for such a grandiose story.

Seriously desperate-looking Count V (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

The only problem I really had was that the film is FULL of magnificent female British actors, which isn’t so much of a problem, as it is fantastic to see in a major film. Michelle Dockery makes several appearances and acts exactly like Lady Mary; Emily Watson, Shirley Henderson and Ruth Wilson also make an excellent contribution to this well-constructed period classic.

If you don’t enjoy period dramas, then obviously this won’t appeal to you; but it is a fantastic piece of work. Hats off to Joe Wright, and long may his artistic relationship with Kiera Knightley continue.

Caitlin McGrane is You’re Dripping Egg’s resident film critic. You can read her column, Here. Hare. Here., every Friday. 

What do you think of extravagant film adaptations of Russian literature? Do you wish there were more actual Russian accents? To the comments

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