Life is a theatre set – Anna Karenina review

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By Jess Lomas
February 12, 2013

Adapting one of literature’s greatest tragedies is no easy feat, as Joe Wright’s take on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina repeatedly demonstrates. While the picture soars creatively, giving us some of the most exquisite sequences of recent times, it lacks the burning passion necessary to raise this from a pretty film to a powerful one.

In 19th century Russia, 18-year-old Anna (Keira Knightley) marries government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), and settles into her role as wife and mother to their one son. Eight years after their nuptials, Anna is called to Moscow by sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), who is tired of her husband’s philandering and seeking Anna’s counsel. While Anna attempts to convince Dolly to forgive Oblonsky (Mathew Macfadyen), she falls into a similar extramarital trap with young army officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

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Alongside Anna’s story is Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson), a friend of Oblonsky who pursues the young Kitty (Alicia Vikander) for marriage. He faces rejection when Kitty chooses to believe Count Vronsky also plans on proposing. Levin and Kitty’s relationship follows a similar track to Vronksy and Anna’s, though theirs is one of tenderness rather than lust, and thus they narrowly avoid heartbreak.

Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) attempt to breathe new life into a much-adapted story by setting their Anna Karenina largely in and around the theatre stage. With the movie starting as a production would, the audience is immediately aware – much like high society would have been in 1874 – that all is not what it seems. This approach allows for several breathtaking moments as scenes melt into one another; the camera sweeping around pillars, between floors, and through doors in an almost stream of consciousness style of filmmaking.

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Reuniting once again with his Pride and Prejudice and Atonement leading lady suggests the third time is not always lucky for Wright, and while Knightley gives a mature and measured performance here, it is certainly not show stopping. Law as her uptight husband is, on the other hand, a fine choice, as is Macfadyen, who delivers some much needed comic relief. The lack of chemistry between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson is perhaps the film’s biggest obstacle. Their love story is meant to inspire and devastate, and yet one can’t help wishing (in this adaptation, at least), that Anna would just return to Alexei.

3/5

Anna Karenina arrives in Australian cinemas February 14, 2013.

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