William Shakespeare once scribbled ‘All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players’. Atonement director Joe Wright has taken the playwright’s observations literally with his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, but ironically the Russian novelist wasn’t a fan of the bard of Avon.
Written by the Oscar winning screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), the majority of Anna Karenina is set within the walls of a theatre and the action takes place in every accessible space from the balcony to the backstage, often to represent the social strata of 19th century Russia.
Apart from the notable exceptions, including the transformation of the stalls into a magnificent ballroom and the morphing of the theatre’s rafters into the impoverished streets of St Petersburg, the unusual backdrop rarely worked.
The film’s camerawork takes the audience on a dizzying journey through the intimate landscapes of Imperial Russia before the rise of the Bolsheviks. The beautiful period costumes and incessant outfit changes portray the extravagant wealth of the time and many of the scenes played out like a well choreographed dance, but unfortunately the film lost tempo when switching to the ‘outside’ world.
Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method, Never Let Me Go) takes on the lead role of Anna Karenina, a principal member of Russian aristocracy, who suffers the consequences of breaking the ‘rules’ of polite society in Czarist Russia.
Following her roles in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement it’s obvious Wright enjoys working with Knightly on his period adaptations, but her acting style is more monotony than method, and her portrayal of the rebellious Anna Karenina appears to be nothing more than Keira Knightly in a different period frock.
Nowhere Boy actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson embodies young playboy and seducer Count Vronsky with heartfelt conviction. Adding some serious facial hair to his role, Jude Law’s (Sherlock Holmes, Hugo) subtle performance is both agonizing and heartbreaking as Anna’s husband, the officiously straight and forgiving Alexei Karenin.
But Matthew Macfadyen’s (The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood) performance as Anna’s brother and fun loving philanderer Oblonsky is the highlight of the movie. Macfayden adds an energy to the film to match its visuals and definitely wins the battle of whiskers.
Since leaving the Harry Potter franchise behind, Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (Shadow Dancer, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) gives yet another compelling big screen performance as Levin, and Kelly Macdonald (Brave, No Country for Old Men) shows her versatility as Oblonsky’s wife Dolly.
The film’s unique set design is colourful, vibrant and at times spectacularly over-the-top but Anna Karenina is neither a stage play nor a straight period drama, and doesn’t quite work as either.
Visually stunning and bedazzling Anna Karenina is a beguiling look at the functions and expectations of society before the Russian Revolution and what happens when you fail to conform to your designated role.
Despite the film’s Baz Luhrmann-esque hyper-reality setting, the novel’s famously tragic ending had little emotional impact except for the fleeting thought that a fabulous frock maybe ruined.