Amer­i­can jus­tice on trial

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

(M) ★★★★✩ Na­tional re­lease from Thurs­day

(MA15+) ★★★ Lim­ited re­lease from Thurs­day

L✩ EO Tol­stoy’s great novel Anna Karen­ina was pub­lished orig­i­nally in se­rial form in a four-year pe­riod (1873-77). It’s be­lieved by many to be the great­est novel writ­ten, so it’s not sur­pris­ing there have been sev­eral screen adap­ta­tions of it, start­ing with a Rus­sian ver­sion made in 1914 by Vladimir Gardin. Vivien Leigh, Jac­que­line Bis­set and So­phie Marceau, among oth­ers, have played Anna in films, but for most peo­ple the char­ac­ter’s most mem­o­rable big-screen in­ter­preter was Greta Garbo, who played Anna twice: once in a heav­ily com­pro­mised but still en­ter­tain­ing ver­sion ti­tled Love (1927) op­po­site her then-lover John Gil­bert, and eight years later in an op­u­lent MGM pro­duc­tion di­rected by Clarence Brown with Fredric March as Vron­sky and Basil Rath­bone as Karenin. Garbo’s in­ten­sity, es­pe­cially in the sec­ond film, made her per­fect for the role.

The chal­lenge fac­ing Bri­tish di­rec­tor Joe Wright, who in his first fea­ture tack­led Jane Austen’s Pride & Prej­u­dice (2005), was to bring a fresh ap­proach to what on the face of it seems fa­mil­iar ma­te­rial. In this he has suc­ceeded tri­umphantly. Fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of Lau­rence Olivier’s first fea­ture as di­rec­tor, Henry V (1945), Wright has cre­ated a stylised ver­sion of the drama, set­ting it on the stage of a the­atre with scenes and characters ap­pear­ing back­stage as well as be­fore the au­di­ence, then ef­fort­lessly glid­ing away from the prosce­nium arch into a world of re­al­ity. It’s an ef­fec­tive de­vice and, un­like Olivier, Wright re­turns to the stage sev­eral times dur­ing the film.

In ad­di­tion, he has worked with his tech­ni­cal crew to cre­ate an un­usu­ally com­plex and rhyth­mic sound­track. At times the film is chore­ographed like a mu­si­cal as, for ex­am­ple, in the scenes set in the of­fice of Karenin (Jude Law). This is a bold and un­ex­pected ap­proach that works won­der­fully well.

Some film ver­sions — Love es­pe­cially, which was pro­duced with two end­ings, one of them happy! — have made rad­i­cal changes to the novel, but the ba­sic drama re­mains the same. Anna (Keira Knight­ley), the beau­ti­ful but bored young wife of Karenin, a Tsarist bu­reau­crat, falls hope­lessly in love with Vron­sky (Aaron Tay­lor-John­son), a dash­ing young of­fi­cer who has al­ready left be­hind him a string of bro­ken hearts. They be­gin a passionate af­fair which, when dis­cov­ered, leads to her disgrace.

The new film, adapted for the screen by Tom Stop­pard, in­cludes all this but gives more time than is usual in film ver­sions to the sub­sidiary characters. Kon­stantin Levin (Domh­nall Glee­son) is a de­cent, kindly landowner who is in love with Kitty (Ali­cia Vikan­der), the younger sis­ter of Dolly (Kelly Macdon­ald), the wife of Anna’s Moscow-based brother, Oblon­sky (Matthew Mac­fadyen). Kitty has re­jected Levin be­cause of her in­fat­u­a­tion with Vron­sky, whose fate­ful en­counter with Anna oc­curs when she trav­els from St Peters­burg to Moscow to visit her brother.

The cast is flaw­less un­der Wright’s in­tel­li­gent di­rec­tion. This is the third film on which he has worked with Knight­ley — af­ter Pride & Prej­u­dice and Atone­ment — and she con­firms

Damien Echols, front, and Ja­son Baldwin

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