With the genius of Tom Stoppard on the credits and the inspiration of Tolstoy, Anna Karenina promises big things. Its sumptuous costumes, original concept and big name leading lady all aim to create something with impact, and something to shout about, although the last time Joe Wright took on a literary classic starring Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice, 2005), the result was bitterly disappointing. I left this venture impressed by certain aspects but, I have to admit, generally unmoved: I’d be more likely to mention the film over coffee than shout its praises from the rooftops.
The film looks gorgeous, the screen practically dripping with silk, fur, pearls and lace: visual texture is almost palpable in its richness. And yes, Keira Knightley in the title role also looks gorgeous. The close-up shots certainly do her no harm as the camera lingers on her flawless skin and dark eyes. Yet the problem – once again – with Knightley is that her external suitability for the part, and more unfortunately her acting talents, possess very little depth. She has the right expression for the right moment – the girlish smile, the pained, furrowed brow of distress, the poignant stare into the distance – but there is no feeling in her eyes, no soul in her performance. The portrayal of her growing attraction and love for Vronsky verges on the ridiculous, as her succession of breathy gasps on observing his stares appears to lead directly and very suddenly to a state of utter and blissful adoration. Sadly, her lover suffers from the same limitations. Vronsky has always seemed to me a shallow and unlikeable character, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson went further in depriving him of any real, believable passion. This is partly due to the rushed courtship which the film presents, and partly due to a flatness which haunts his and Knightley’s performance. Jude Law, on the other hand, as the unfortunate Karenin, does repressed emotion beautifully; in a role which may well change perceptions of him as an actor – he has moved away from parts which emphasise his charming good looks – he is understated without being dull, and perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of sympathy and frustration which Karenin attracts. Comedy came in the form of the ever delightful Ruth Wilson (Princess Betsy) and an unusually pompous Matthew Macfadyen (Oblonsky), although a little more attention could have been brought to the always-present tensions between his affability and his repeated adulterous affairs. Wright saves the character from become irritatingly blasé with a simple yet intelligent shot of Macfadyen following the film’s tragic climax, bringing a rare moment of reflection and emotional depth in what is a busy and rather superficial film.
The concept is, admittedly, genius. The setting of a vast Russian novel in the confines (mostly…) of a nineteenth century theatre may seem bizarre and downright impossible, but what Wright admitted was a lightbulb, ‘Eureka!’ moment shows itself to be a real brainwave. The swiftly changing scenes and costumes, and the contrast between on- and off-stage action, epitomise the facades of ‘polite’ Russian society, while the musicality and dance-like movement of the opening scenes – in particular, a cleverly directed scene in Oblsonky’s workplace and a beautifully whirling dance – depict a rhythmic rollercoaster of a social scene. The transitions between Serhoza’s toy trains and the station scenes were again well-crafted, weaving intricately between the world of fantasy and pretend, and of reality. It may not be as madcap as the theatrically-set Moulin Rouge. but you could be forgiven for thinking Wright had been taking lessons from Baz Luhrmann. The symbolic use of colour is effective in the Odette/Odile-esque styling of Kitty and Anna at the ball, although goes too far when Anna and Vronsky, dressed in white, lie and frolic on a white blanket, bathed in white light. Fallen angels? Innocent love made perverse through its adulterous nature? Childlike naivety? It was all a bit too blatant and in-your-face to make any of these ideas seem interesting. Yet all this intricacy and beauty is a sheen over something that, on closer inspection, is rather shallow and lacking.
Although the Russian atmosphere was evoked by jaunty, Troika-esque music and some luscious fur coat and hats, it was lacking in a real evocation of Tolstoy’s intensity and profundity. The film hurdles towards it’s tragic denouement, but still manages to lack the real air of ominous, impending doom. Anna’s eventual death is moving but sudden: the burden of her situation does not seen great enough to warrant suicide, which renders her behaviour bizarre rather than lending the character pathos. As a sidenote, I was glad to see Wright and Stoppard retained the earlier death of a railway worker as a mirroring device, although admittedly the differences between the two unintentionally amused me: while the unfortunate worker met a gruesome, bloody end on the track, Knightley was spared any mutiliation, dying under a train with just a small splash of blood across her waxen features. What rescues the film from an overload of the purely decorative is Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander). The best example of that elusive ‘true love’ in the novel and, some have argued, in literature, Vikander and, in particular, Gleeson do a masterful job at evoking the simple yet beautiful nature of their relationship. It is not sweet and sickly, nor is it reduced to an uninteresting subplot; the scene in which Kitty tends to Levin’s sick, socially outcast brother is full of warmth and tenderness and the acting is allowed to speak for itself without fancy cinematic ornamentation.
Yet on the whole, however much I enjoyed the film’s style and visual feast, it still felt rather unsatisfying. There is a veil of brilliance here, but it covers a shallow and unconvincing heart.