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'Anna Karenina' Early Review: Visually Splendid, Audacious, Swoony Epic Romance Heads for Oscars

by David Gritten
September 2, 2012 7:00 PM
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Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"
Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

The long-standing UK production company Working Title often walks a fine line, finding ways to make lavish-looking films with an original, even indie sensibility. Over the years they have benefited from being bankrolled by a Hollywood studio (Universal) but have earned themselves the creative freedom that prevents their films from ever looking like cookie-cutter studio product.

Their confident habitation of this middle ground is evident in the startling new adaptation of Tolstoy’s great novel "Anna Karenina," with Keira Knightley in the title role. It’s as visually splendid as any studio epic, even if it plays with audience expectations of what lavish looks like. It’s a respectable adaptation of a huge story, encompassing a wealth of ideas; yet it also has the direct, heartfelt appeal of what Hollywood once called ‘a women’s picture.’

Whatever faults its screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright may possess, as a director, timidity isn’t among them. Their collaboration in bringing Tolstoy’s masterwork to the big screen is one of real audacity; even when the movie falters occasionally, you feel obliged to applaud the ambition.

Between them, Wright and Stoppard have filleted and condensed this doorstep of a novel into two hours of screen time, fashioning it into a swirling, swoony, achingly romantic tragedy. Its witty premise is to present the story of doomed heroine Anna literally as a piece of theatre, played out beneath a proscenium arch with its own backstage, curtain and audience. But magically and playfully, Wright’s cameras open up the confines of the stage to expansive, exterior vistas; it’s dazzling to watch.

Stoppard has claimed that the theatrical setting was Wright’s idea, while his dialogue – an orthodox telling of Tolstoy’s story -- remained intact. Either way, all this is accomplished while keeping the sweep of the novel and its diverse themes broadly intact. With "Shakespeare in Love," Stoppard showed a flair for intelligent irreverence when approaching the work and legacy of a literary giant.  So this time around, it’s unsurprising that he doesn’t tiptoe around Tolstoy. And that’s a shrewd instinct: after all, "Anna Karenina" was originally published in instalments, complete with what we now call cliff-hangers; its melodramatic aspects are never totally absent.

Keira Knightley is an actress who, in Britain at least, sharply divides opinion. This is partly "tall poppy syndrome," a London-based aversion to Brits who make it big abroad, and especially in Hollywood. It’s also a troll thing: she seems doomed to be sniped at by anonymous people more obsessed by celebrity values and actresses’ looks rather than their skill. In fact, she’s a fine Anna – in turns charming, haughty, and dispirited. As usual, Knightley raises her game under Wright’s direction, as her work in "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice" has already confirmed.

Knightley, incidentally, looks resplendent in costumes designed by Jacqueline Durran, who also dressed her in those other two films of Wright’s and was Oscar-nominated each time. This may be her third time lucky.

In an all-British cast, Matthew MacFadyen stands out as Anna’s horny, insouciant brother Oblonsky, while Jude Law pleasingly reins himself in as her husband Karenin -- a dull, virtuous public man.

Yet it’s the visuals you remember: snow-covered toy trains, rooms of industrious clerks, backstage scene-shifting, a race between galloping horses across the cramped stage of a theatre. The sound too is startlingly vivid: knuckles crack and knees creak, while ingeniously horses’ hooves and the tapping of a railway engine’s wheels become something else entirely.


  • Jess | January 14, 2013 10:37 AMReply

    I have to agree Jonnybon. There are plenty of internationally renowned British actors/actresses that don't 'sharpley divide opinion' quite in the UK. Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Daniel Day-Lewis, Helen Mirren. And in case you thought we were only capable of loving the older ones: Andrew Garfield, Kate Winslet, Carey Mulligan, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, Romola Garai, Rachel Weisz. I could go on. I don't believe any of them have critics as divided. Yes I'm sure there is a critic somewhere that has written something critical about any of them at one time, and they won't all have flawless acting pasts. Even Jude Law (more recently) and Aaron Johnston, her colleagues in this, both British, both internationally known, come under less slack in general. It's not some 'tall poppy syndrome', but rather the fact that a significant number of people find her acting at best, limited, and at worse, painful to watch. I'm still not sure I'll ever forgive her for 'A Dangerous Method'. (I will concede that she was decent in Pride & Prejudice, though.)

  • The Pope | September 3, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    Seamus McGarvey's luminous cinematography is an Oscar lock. He was nommed before, Atonement, and his work here shows how diverse he is (he lensed The Avengers as well).

  • Finn | September 3, 2012 4:03 AMReply

    Not actually an all-British cast--among the principals, Domhnall Gleeson (Levin) is Irish, while Alicia Vikander (Kitty) is Swedish.

  • David Gritten | September 4, 2012 11:32 AM

    Quite right, Finn. This is what happens when you omit the word 'almost' before the phrase 'all-British'. My mistake, and my apologies -- to you and the actors concerned.

  • YUMMY MONEY | September 3, 2012 2:42 AMReply

    So David Gritten writes a review for Anne Thompson, and then an ever-so-slightly modified version of the same review for the Daily Telegraph? Doubling-up on those paychecks, huh?

  • Jonnybon | September 2, 2012 7:33 PMReply

    That is not why a lot of us Brits dislike Knightley. The reason is that some of her performances are plain bad/annoying, and her stupid pout is ridiculous. That said, Joe Wright brings out the best in her, and her Pride & Prejudice performance in particular was impressive.

  • Lee | September 6, 2012 1:28 PM

    yeah, I'm wondering about that pout too. Until now I still think it's just part of her mannerism.

  • Neil | September 4, 2012 12:55 AM

    The British can't help but be snobbish. It is part of their genetic make-up and it doesn't matter if one is working class or upper class, they all are pretty adept at looking down their collective noses; speaking as one who is a Canadian but whose relatives are all British. We suffer the same ailment in our country where any artist who makes it big outside our country seems suddenly lacking in "real" talent except for a very few like Christopher Plummer, Neil Young, Joni Mitchel and a few others.

  • Jonnybon | September 3, 2012 5:59 AM

    Cronenberg is no great, and he has worked with many average/bad/annoying actors.

  • Mike | September 2, 2012 10:17 PM

    I thank God everyday for that pout on her face. I don't think Cronenberg would want to work with her if she gave bad/annoying performances like you said.

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