[This review was originally posted in September to coincide with the UK release of Anna Karenina. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release of the film.]
After a run of trying-too-hard Oscarbait pictures, Joe Wright's Hanna looked like a concerted effort to make a movie for people who didn't work at the Academy and perhaps went to the cinema to, heaven forfend, be entertained. Unfortunately, Anna Karenina sees him return to all his worst habits: a historical adaptation of a classic novel more concerned with being a showcase for the director than telling a story or building emotionally complex characters.
In faint recognition of his reputation for directing this kind of movie, Wright sets his interpretation of Karenina in an abandoned theatre, a gimmick seemingly designed to satirise the artifice and posturing that have become staples of the period genre. It's a decent idea, except Wright gets so caught up in it he neglects to add any depth beneath the dazzling surface.
There's no question that the movie looks gorgeous. Every part of the theatre is used, from the basement beneath the stage to the catwalks above it. Beautifully crafted props flow in and out of shot, redefining the landscape as the camera moves from one area to the next. While much of this is obviously an in-camera illusion, it's an astonishing feat of showmanship, turning an auditorium into a snow-covered train station, or a grand derby with horses charging across the stage. Wright may be showing off, and certainly isn't subtle about it, but his movie is given a flair and dynamism uncommon in this stuffiest of genres. It's the polar opposite of the brutal realism Andrea Arnold brought to her Wuthering Heights, but while Wright's trick is unlikely to work a second time, the cheeky revisionism is no less potent.
The technique makes a thematic connection to Tolstoy's narrative as well. As much fun as Wright is having in mocking the excessively choreographed ballroom scenes which have clogged up the genre since time immemorial, the theatrical setting gives the impression of a gilded cage to the Russian high society which exiles Anna once news of her affair breaks, even though her lover is subject to no such recriminations. To make the point explicit, Levin's story, wherein he wins the heart of a society girl and takes her for a hard-working but happy life in the countryside, is shot almost entirely outdoors. The landscapes are barren and rough compared to the stage's glamourous interiors, but wide open and free. Whereas Wright's extended tracking shot across the battle-scarred beaches of Dunkirk in Atonement was a meaningless piece of directorial egotism, Karenina's gimmick is at least appropriate to the novel.
Unfortunately, while Wright engages intelligently with Tolstoy's themes, he shows no such knack for telling a story or forming any kind of emotional bond with his characters. Perhaps Tom Stoppard's screenplay should be commended for condensing an 850-page novel into a two hour movie while still making sense, but everything feels too rushed and clinical to allow the material or audience room to breathe. Anna barely spends more than a few minutes with her son, despite their separation later being a primary reason for her going mad. Levin's story has a thematic connection with Anna's, yet little reason to exist in narrative terms, with the two characters barely sharing a single scene. Anna surrendering her beliefs to have an affair with Vronsky seems to be told in a series of checkpoints, rather than allowed to develop naturally: she's initially repelled by her attraction to him, then isn't, with little in-between to contextualise why she would be willing to give up everything to be with this man, other than boredom and perhaps a fondness for pube moustaches.
The failure of the central romance is in large part down to Aaron Taylor-Johnson's simpering interpretation of Vronsky. Far from the passionate, swarthy officer of Tolstoy's conceiving, Taylor-Johnson minces through the movie with the syrupy expression and posture of a schoolboy with a testicle caught in his zipper but too embarrassed to do anything about it. He's no more believable as an experienced womaniser than as an officer of the Russian army, where any squaddie worth his helmet would be using this milquetoast goon of a Vronsky as a human shield.
I seem to be one of the few people who considers Keira Knightley a perfectly good actress (although better on stage than on screen), but she never feels a good fit for Anna. Though Knightley is twenty-seven and Anna married at eighteen, she looks far too young to be a mother. The numbers may add up, but there's something which doesn't sit right about watching it in practice. Furthermore, Knightley's interpretation of madness still involves little more than jutting out her jaw and scruffing her hair a bit, which doesn't lend much gravitas to her character's downfall. She has some well-handled moments and is better at wordlessly communicating feelings and inner turmoil than she used to be, but it's a struggle to stay interested in a love story when both leads are miscast. It's an uphill battle for her, as no-one could share chemistry with the mesmerisingly awful Taylor-Johnson, but the kindest summation of her performance is that she gives a brave attempt but never really stood a chance.
The supporting cast are significantly better, with Matthew Macfadyen easily stealing each of his scenes as charismatic socialite Oblonsky. Jude Law lends a quiet, intense dignity to Anna's wronged husband, Alexei, who suffers greatly for his crime of being tremendously dull. (The whole situation might have been averted if only he'd learnt a few knock-knock jokes and read Fifty Shades Of Grey). Levin is given a strong inner honesty by Domhnall Gleeson, completely out of place in the backstabbing high society world, and Ruth Wilson, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson make for a marvellous trio of bitchskis.
Sadly, for all the strong work done on the periphery, the many storytelling failings doom the movie to appearing every bit as shallow as the social snobs it so condemns. Once the novelty of the staging wears thin, and even Wright seems to get bored of it near the end, there's nothing left to hold the interest. Despite endless talk of love, the exaggerated (literal) theatricality forces a disconnect between the characters and audience. While Law, Macfadyen and Gleeson give powerful enough performances to win sympathy back, Knightley and Taylor-Johnson are too stiff and out of place for their doomed affair to feel anything other than dishonest and bereft of feeling.
Tolstoy famously had little time for the stage, and Wright's adaptation perhaps shows why. A deep, passionate novel is reduced to a series of beautiful but forced encounters, while the vast scope of its story cannot help but feel reduced and enclosed by the theatrical framing device. The props are elaborate and stunningly put together, but it's a shame Wright put so much effort into them that his main characters feel like they've been lifted off the shelf at Ikea.