ANNA KARENINA (M)
Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
Screening: general release
FOR their third feature together, British director Joe Wright opts to take his leading lady, Keira Knightley, on a tour de force through Tolstoy's 19th-century masterpiece.
Since there have been at least a dozen other big-screen adaptations of the sprawling Russian tome - the most famous of which featured Greta Garbo, in both 1927 and 1935 - Wright understandably looks towards a fresh device to both contain the expansive action and reinvigorate it for a modern audience.
Working off a script from Tom Stoppard, Wright grounds matters in an old, dilapidated theatre, where increasingly lavish proceedings spring. This Anna Karenina, then, is literally pure theatrics, with characters performing an almost non-stop choreographed dance through much of the opening act.
Knightley, looking positively radiant as the aristocratic Anna, wisely delivers an exaggerated English plum, rather than affecting a painfully strained Russian diction.
Suitably bejewelled and dressed, her return to Moscow is ostensibly to help salvage the marriage of her philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), and the poor, distraught Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Yet Anna's own union, to the stuffy Karenin (Jude Law), has long since gone stale, and sparks soon fly when she sets eyes upon the cartoon-like Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
With all the theatrical pomp of a Tom Hooper musical, Wright's staged version tries desperately hard to both gain one's attention (which it does) and engage one's affection (which it doesn't).
The production design (Sarah Greenwood), set design (Katie Spencer), costume design (Jacqueline Durran) and choreography (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) are all breathtaking. Yet not once do we even vaguely connect with the characters on show.
There is not an ounce of chemistry between Knightley and Johnson - decked out with silly wig and fake moustache - as the pair eyes one another off, as if in a comedy skit. Their love scene is bereft of passion.
A subplot involving an overly earnest landowner (Domhnall Gleeson) and Anna's rapacious sister, Kitty (Sweden's Alicia Vikander), doesn't help, either.
Only Macfadyen fully registers, as the ravenously wandering Oblonsky. But it's not enough and feels vacuous, sapped of any soul.
This particular compression of Tolstoy's work may well prove a challenge for even the most ardent of Wright-Knightley supporters. Clarence Brown's definitive 1935 version remains the one to view. The Sunday Age