All For Love: Leo, Tom and Joe’s Anna Karenina

(First published by Independent Australia)

It may have been Stoppard who beguiled Joe Wright into filming Karenina like a play; or a half-play-half-movie in the vaudeville-pier-end style of Oh What A Lovely War. Or it may have been Joe in an ego-tempest of self-love attempting to upstage Tolstoy as Baz and Benedict and Barrie do with Shakespeare on this faraway, fatal shore every year or so.

It was a bad idea, and I nearly left, but was glad I stayed.

For it was in most other regards near perfect. There will never be as good an Anna as Keira Knightley, nor as exquisite a widow’s black veil through which she beweeps with large, brimming eyes her outcast state. Nor as great, truly great, a Karenin as Jude Law: bearded, wispy-bald, pale-eyed, spectacled, pious, punishing, self-punishing, racked with guilt and unstifled love and puritan resentment of that love, he inhabits the role with the moral force of a Smoktunovsky or Scofield or Spacey. There will be no better reading I think of this role ever, nor no better dialogue, cutting like a shark’s fin through the story’s dark waters, showing what adultery was then, and the cost of it; and aristocracy; and duty; and the burden of one’s good name. In the doleful red-headed Levin (Domhnal Gleeson) we see hints of Chekhov’s Astrov, a sympathiser with the serfs, scything hay beside them and foreboding like Lenin the end of everything.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Count Vronsky, Anna’s impetuous high-born lover, is a bit of a worry. He seems too insipid, shallow, youthful and narcissistic to so easily pierce through Anna’s marital carapace, but such men do, I guess, and have. For me the role belonged to Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey, but what would I know. He is a fine actor, though, and that vital thing, his Russianness, is not in doubt.

The costumes are excellent, the lighting and angles very, very good, the walk-ons (Emily Watson; Alicia Vikander; Olivia Williams; David Wilmot; Tannishtha Chatterjee; Matthew Macfadyen as a jesting, Rumpolish Oblonsky) always unimpeachably fine, every one of them. But …

It’s in a theatre, much of it, and in the wings and the dressing rooms and the backstage ladders and corridors; and at one point a horse-race, with real horses, flashes past the footlights, and it feels like the Ascot Race number in My Fair Lady and you wonder why nobody is bursting into song. And … there’s a ballroom scene in an auditorium too small for it, and a parliament scene in an auditorium too small for it, and at one point an entire theatre full of meadow-grass, clogging up the aisles … And for most of the time the train is a toy train … And it seems like a musical without the songs ..

And it’s a pity. Always the directorial ‘vision’ is jostling with Tolstoy, one of the world’s greatest novelists, and with Stoppard, one of the world’s greatest dramatists, and you know it’s a contest Joe won’t win …

But it works, in an odd way. And you come out purged and wiser, as Aristotle recommended. And although the ‘auteur’ (what a silly concept that is on this particular project) has loftily sacrificed box office takings of somewhere north of six hundred million dollars, preferring twenty or thirty, he got his way.

Or Tom did; and the set designer had a ball.

And it’s a pity.

  1. To call up in oneself a feeling once experienced and, having called it up, to convey it by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, images expressed in words, so that others experience the same feeling – in this consists the activity of art.

    – Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?

  2. Simeon Goodfellow

    I’m afraid that despite some spirited performances and taut dialogue, the post-modern framing of the story within an old wooden theatre where the camera periodically wheels dizzily 360 degrees to the next scene - while clever - was rather grating after a while.

    Ms Knightley gave it her best shot, but Garbo and Leigh were much better in the role of Anna in my opinion. I found myself wanting to horse whip her after about the fifth time she flashed her ‘Blue steel’ look of pursed-lip defiance.

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