Just when we thought there’s nothing left to carp about costume dramas, Joe Wright, perpetrator of hit-and-miss wonders (Atonement, hit – Hannah, miss) picks up yet another literary behemoth, perhaps one of the big guns of Western literature, Tolstoy’s Russian romantic tragedy Anna Karenina and turns screen adaptation around its head. Tom Stoppard, mastermind of cinematic classics since the dawn of time, provides a linear screenplay, but it’s Wright who rips out Tolstoy’s stolid, dense tome and confines most of the action within and around a threadbare theatre. It’s a bold, bravura conceit – that is, if you haven’t seen Baz Lhurmann’s Moulin Rouge!
Both are set to the Shakespearean all-the-world’s-a-stage concept, but where Lhurmann utilised the red curtain for some debauched razzle-dazzle, Wright uses the stage and theatre to a purpose – a metaphor to the pageantry of the Imperial Russian high society. The conceit fits Tolstoy’s socio-political (and moral) coda like a tailored glove. And whilst this production of Anna Karenina might not possess the scope or the budget of the last great Hollywood Russian epic Doctor Zhivago – Wright’s aesthetic approach works rather splendidly, as the theatre becomes a variant of a Rubik’s Cube, with every camera turn revealing a different setting, morphing shades, scenery and textures. It’s a mesmerising technical revelation – impressively combining aspects of theatre, operetta and choreographic performance art into the medium of cinema rarely displayed in mainstream filmmaking today.
Keira attends her 1,875th costume drama, to which she becomes an expected, if not beloved, attendee.
There are moments that will leave you in awe – Seamus McGarvey’s dazzling camerawork spins around a bustling Fellini-like theatre filled with distinct characters in long takes, or even smoothly tracking Keira Knightley’s Anna through shifting hallways, staircases and corridors. Here is a harmonious marriage between cinematography, art direction and choreography, with Wright displaying supreme command of mise-en-scène. And there’s barely any CGI involved. It’s braver, much riskier than your standard period drama, and that, in itself, is worth applauding to.
But – here’s the caveat – like all great conceits, they need momentum and power to sustain greatness, and this is where Wright stumbles. Halfway through, after a magnificently mounted ballroom sequence reminiscent of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and a rather thrillingly staged horse race entirely set in an auditorium, the conceit loses steam. The film balletically transforms into a soapy, if not thuddingly banal, opera, which the film doesn’t quite recover until its final moments. The artifice shows cracks in the third act, where Anna’s downward spiral from upper-class elite to undesirable town whore somehow plays second fiddle to style and showmanship. The intensity of emotions, despite a very good central performance by Knightley, never quite come off like fireworks where it’s supposed to. Secondly, the chemistry between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson is as dim as a LED lightbulb. It’s never really fully convincing, that Knightley’s Anna would fall for such a reckless man-child Count Vronsky (which Johnson plays like a naïve brat). Thankfully, there’s Knightley, who should be receiving a gold medal based on the number of costumes she’s ever been in by now, giving a terrific turn. Her Anna is both sympathetic and repellent – a complex creation, psychologically jaded and disillusioned, physically and mentally trapped within the confines of social conventions, rules and ethics.
Despite Wright’s visual panache and technical ingenuity, his version of Tolstoy’s romantic epic never quite fully soars. There are plenty of invention and audacity on display here, but storytelling seems to play second fiddle to style and pageantry. Anna’s tortured journey to destructive love is somehow overshadowed by Wright’s meticulous showmanship.