The cast/crew bit: directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law & Aaron Johnson
The ten-word synopsis: Keira Knightley adaptation of the classic Russian romantic epic novel.
The novel Anna Karenina, written by Mr. War and Peace Leo Tolstoy, clocks in at little under under 1000 pages. For years, it has been the bane of many an English Literature students life, taunting them with its complex themes, ever-twisting plot and characters who avoid becoming caricatures. As such, it won’t come as a surprise for me to inform you all that this particular adaptation of Anna Karenina is, sitting at around 2 hours and twenty minutes, both too long and too compressed at the same time.
It’s a tricky conundrum: Make the film three-plus hours long and risk boring the audience, but cram the vital character-building details in, or go for a 90-minute fat-trimming adaptation that works as an entertaining romanticised romp, but lacks the impact of novels’ key ingredients. Instead, we get a mish-mashed middle ground, which falls a little flat. Director Joe Wright has previous literary adaptation experience in the form of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, both of which are quite good and manage to be far more engaging than his latest work does. The main problem with Anna Karenina is an odd one. While it certainly suffers from what are obviously complex characters being toned down, even though most of their moral spines remain, and could certainly do with losing twenty minutes, it’s just the fact that it’s uninvolving. The cast I’ll get onto, but their performances are good enough to warrant an emotional attachment and the characters are human enough for us to care, so it’s hard to put a finger on how and why it lacks an edge to tie us in. (Or me, anyway)
The film is framed by the use of the theatre, as though we were watching a play of the film, which cleverly links to other scenes, which involve either the theatre of one scene in which (Presumably to save money) a horse race is played out as some kind of pantomime equestrian-fest. It’s been suggested that this works to alienate the audience, although it certainly didn’t do it consciously in my mind. However, I did find myself instead of thinking about the character of Anna, mentally referring to her as ‘Keira’ and her lover, Count Vronsky, (Played by Aaron Johnson) was consistently “Kick Ass”.
It’s a shame, though, as the cast do a pretty good job. As thoughs who have read my critique of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World will have picked up, I’m a fan of Ms Knightley, and as such shall save you the heaps of praise I’m wanting to distil upon her. While I’m not going to pretend this is anything like her finest performance, or even nearly as endearing as the one given in the aforementioned apocalyptic romcom, she still pulls off a role I can picture few other actresses nailing in solid fashion. Jude Law plays her loyal and anxious husband, and offers a backbone around which the various moving parts of the film can play. Aaron Johnson is alright, but seems an odd choice for the role which was reportedly originally offered to Benedict Cumberbatch. Where Cumberbatch to have got it, I could see the film improving tenfold, but what’s been done is done, and Cumberbatch probably saw that the film was going to fall a bit flat and steered clear.
A word must go to the supporting cast, too. Alicia Vikander, last seem giving a wonderful performance in Danish costume drama masterclass A Royal Affair is on similar form here, nailing her relatively small role. Braves’ Kelly MacDonald also does a noteworth job, while Bill Weasley himself, Domhnall Gleeson, creates an interesting subplot around his character. Wright seems to be doing quite a good job of getting performances out of his actors, even if the pacing isn’t there.
Anna Karenina may strike fear in the heart of English Literature students, but this film adaptation is unfortunately lacking in the ability to inspire any real reaction. It’s a solid costume period drama, but is lacking an element of pizzaz and audience involvement that it desperately needs to pull ahead of the million other middle-of-the-line 19th-century romances. There’s definately a great film to be made with the story, a great film to be made with the cast and a great film to be made by Joe Wright, but unfortunately, this isn’t it.
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