I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.
The opening 15 minutes or so is probably where Wright’s technical virtuosity is most in evidence, as we see a succession of scenes introducing the central characters for the ensuing drama. These are chiefly Anna (Keira Knightley), her ministerial husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), her dandy aristocratic brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a shabbily-dressed lank-haired friend of Stiva’s who is in love with Kitty. These opening scenes are framed — as are several throughout the film — by the front of a stage with its footlights, as seen in many of the posters. It’s a cute way of presenting the story as a self-consciously staged one, only heightened by the colour and detail of the costumes and the elaborate intricacy of the set design.
Scenes, too, blend into one another, as characters seamlessly move from one geographical and spatial setting to another without any ostensible cuts, another distancing technique which recalls similar sequences in classic post-war new wave filmmaking, but which most brings to my mind the playful experimentation of Raúl Ruiz, especially his adaptation of Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999). Yet where Ruiz’s touch was light and perfectly integrated into the sense of nostalgia and memory that Proust’s work dealt with, here the technique seems far more self-aggrandising, and serves to distance us further as viewers from the grand, melodramatic story being shown.
And it is melodramatic, with all kinds of ridiculous touches, showing excess in the costumes and in the sets (trains entirely encrusted with snow, as just one example). Where the film palpably scores is in some of the supporting acting. While I remain unconvinced by the lovers at the film’s centre, Jude Law imparts real pathos to the upright, slightly dull politician, while Alicia Vikander is charming as Kitty — even if the scene between her and Kostya where they reveal their feelings via coloured alphabet bricks is too cute by half.
Still, it hits all the rights kinds of notes for the sumptuously-staged period drama it is, so those who are partial to this sort of thing will find it passably enjoyable, no doubt.
Director Joe Wright; Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy Лев Толстой); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014.