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Anna Karenina (AF)


Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson., Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander. With Olivia Williams and Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright

There are no opening credits.

Given the major disappointment that is director Wright’s third film with Keira Knightley, this might be a good, not to say charitable idea – except that we are later treated to the immodest credit “A JOE WRIGHT FILM”. (Actually that might simply be Wright taking the major blame for his pompous pageant based on the celebrated Leo Tolstoy novel, previously filmed by, among others, by Clarence Brown in 1935 with Greta Garbo, while Vivien Leigh took the title role in 1948 in Rene Clair’s take on the celebrated story).

So how does Knightley match up? The answer, sadly, is not very well.

She is stunning to look at in Oscar-worthy costumes, equally award-worthy production design (Sarah Greenwood) and cinematography (Seamus McGarvey). But her performance as the married19th century Russian aristocrat whose scandalous affair with cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) makes her an outcast in society circles (she is cruelly humiliated by the other upper-crust theatregoers when she dares to turn up at the opera) is as flat as the Russian steppes. It’s simply not enough to look like Knightley at her most photogenic. She just isn’t up to the dramatic demands of the role.

Taylor-Johnson, adequate as the young John Lennon, fails to bring Vronsky to anything approaching credible life, settling instead for sporting a splendid hairstyle and moustache. Other key roles are played with varying impact (but not enough to save the show) by Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson, leaving the acting laurels to be triumphantly scooped by Jude Law who, as Knightley’s cuckolded husband, gives his finest performance in ages and far and away the best portrayal in the film.

But even his mesmerizing acting can’t animate the stodgy melodrama that is this wearisome Wright-and-Knightley misfire. Knightley seemed to be Wright’s ideal muse for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Here the muse appears to have deserted them both.

Tom Stoppard is currently harvesting critical plaudits heaped on him for his teleplay for the BBC’s miniseries ‘Parade’s End’. Here, however, his screenplay is rendered all the more tedious by Wright’s increasingly irritating and pretentious direction, which shamelessly plays to the arthouse audience by (and too often arbitrarily) switching scenes set on the stage and acted accordingly to scenes filmed in ‘real life’ which, while often superb to look at, simply jar, interrupting the narrative for self-seeking directorial cleverness. The ultimate result of this miscalculation is irksome, and further dilutes already ineffective storytelling, no more so than at the magnificently mishandled climax.

Why not let Knightley have the last word? When she states, “This is unendurable!”, it’s really difficult to argue with her.

Alan Frank

UK/France 2012. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour by deluxe.
130 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 03 Sep 2012