Sunday, 30 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: Anna Karenina

Despite my best intentions to see Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, I ended up seeing it as a back up choice, when my free screening of Liberal Arts was cancelled (thanks, Revolver) and I didn't want to have travelled all the way to Bradford in the pouring rain for no reason. For other matters I won't bore you with, the whole night turned out to be quite a shocker, so it was with welcome thanks that Anna Karenina didn't add to the misery. It was sweeping and luxurious - and all I wanted to do afterwards was curl up with Gone With the Wind (and that's a compliment!).

I haven't read the book by Leo Tolstoy, but the ending is infamous (imagine going in not knowing the ending! envious!) - what I wanted most from this film, and what I was most intrigued by, was to understand how it could get to that point, was there was no other option for her? I wanted the story to pull me in so much that my rational self would be humbled by the strength of this classic and ill-starred love story.

Anna (Keira Knightley) is happy with her life in St Petersburg, married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a wealthy statesman and besotted with her young son Seryozha. She is contented, lives a life of happy luxury, and is thought of well in society. But it's during a trip to Moscow to visit her brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen) where she attends a grand ball held for young Kitty (Alicia Vikander) to make her debut in society when Anna begins to feel the longing of being young and free again, and finds herself daringly attracted to Kitty's suitor, and son of the Countess she travelled on the train with, Calvary officer Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). He, who up until this moment only had eyes for the sweet and innocent Kitty, is also drawn to to Anna, and the two of them share a dance which lasts long into the evening - and their reluctance to separate and find another partner, particularly for Vronsky to dance with his bride in waiting Kitty, becomes inappropriate, and ends in humiliation for Kitty and shamed desire for Anna and Vronsky, who unable to shake her travels back with her to St Petersburg and pursues her until the two of them can no longer suppress their feelings and begin an affair. The two meet in secret, and though Karenin suspects his wife may be treading a dangerous path, is only moved to verbally restrain her after she reacts senselessly in front of an audience when Vronsky falls from his horse in a race and is nearly killed - her irrepressible love for him betrays her stoic and elegant portrayal as Karenin's wife. But she cannot do as her husband wishes and cut all ties with Vronsky - she reveals that she is carrying his baby, and Karenin leaves her. Despite now being free to be with the man she loves, Anna becomes feverish in her pregnancy and begs for her husband's forgiveness, driving Vronsky away when she gives birth to their daughter, but then later feeling horrified that she pushed him away. Karenin angry that she cannot let this young boy go disowns her, prohibiting Anna from seeing Seryozha, and refusing to begin divorce proceedings too - leaving Anna not just in an emotional whirlpool, but as a leper in society, with all her long term friends now frowning at her audacity to show herself in public. Unable to be with Vronsky except for behind closed doors, she becomes increasingly paranoid he is cavorting with other women, especially younger princesses, and despite his protestations her anxiety cannot be cured, but neither can she find a purpose in anything else but her love for Vronsky. This torment will ultimately destroy her.

This is my first Joe Wright film, surprisingly enough. Atonement has long been on my to-see list, but his other films have never ignited my curiosity. There have been plenty of adaptations of Anna Karenina, most notably the 1948 version with Vivien Leigh playing the doomed heroine - a fact I like a lot as she shares many qualities with Leigh's Scarlet O'Hara, my favourite leading lady (and spoilt brat) in cinema. But what Wright does admirably to make his version stand out is he chooses to set the adaptation in a theatre - on a proscenium stage, like a picture frame we are watching these characters play out this epic love story. This device is used so well - I loved when the actors would leave a scene by climbing a ladder up to the fly tower, which would then becomes an attic or a bedroom, or when Anna is meeting Vronsky in a meadow, and the stage and auditorium would be filled with wheatgrass. Beautifully done - the only other film I've seen like this is a Czech film called The Karamazovs, which also centres on a theatre production of a Russian novel, this time Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, but this focuses more on the rehearsals and the actors themselves taking part in the play, whereas with Anna Karenina the theatre audience is us, and the proscenium is more aesthetic than it is functional. Wright also manages to capture the sumptuousness of Russian high society, and the clothes and decor are just divine - I fell in love with wanting to be a Russian Princess and attend balls, and the Opera, and wear lung-squeezing gowns. Credit also to screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who brings Tolstoy's story into Joe Wright's unique vision with seamless effort.

There are ominous portents littered throughout the film: Countess Vronskaya talking about having no regrets for acting upon her passions, something Anna cannot understand; the ruin awaiting Dolly if she were to leave her husband; the railway worker's death under the train; Anna's continual wearing of black - all point towards Anna's ruin and eventual tragedy. I particularly loved the use of trains, especially when Anna leaves the ball after dancing with Vronsky and as her passions overwhelm her all she can hear are the shrieking, clumping roar of the train's wheels against the iron tracks. The end when it comes is a blur of impulsive madness, something you feel is stronger than Anna's mind and will; it brings her only comfort. Knightley is good in this, but I always find her a bit shrill. She is wonderful at being carefree at the beginning of the film, and defiant when she needs to be. But when she's desperate and clinging to both Karenin and Vronsky, she loses the power to be pitied.

Jude Law is just the right amount of broken here: he reins it in beautifully to give a powerful understated performance when in earlier roles of similar heartache he can be completely irritating. Aaron Johnson was the one I was worried for - he is the weakest here, but not as out of his depth as I feared he would be. He matches Knightley well, and they are believable in their impassioned trysts, but he feels a little too young at times. When Vronsky should be strong and seductive, he comes across more persistent. It's the Moscow crowd which really stand out: MacFayden is brilliantly humorous as Oblonsky, despite his inability to stay faithful, and Kelly MacDonald is strong as his poor wife Dolly. But it's the parallel romance of Kitty and Levin, played by Domhnall Gleeson, which I enjoyed the most. Their storyline heavily reduced from Tolstoy's words but I understand given much more screen time than previous adaptations, I loved their gentle and awkward romance,  that is a true and loyal love not born out an illicit affair or an arrangement. The scene with the toy letter blocks, an unspoken declaration of their love, is quite beautiful, as is Levin's determination for princess Kitty not to see his brother's decay into alcoholic ruin and his mistress - and yet she pushes him aside, rolls up her sleeves and begins to wash him - showing us she accepts Levin wholeheartedly, dirt and all.

Two hours of glorious and luscious escapism await: perhaps you won't come away feeling like your heart has been through the wringer with Anna Karenina, but it's a distance you'll still savour, having been dazzled by how pretty it is look at, and enraptured by a truly classic love story.

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