American justice on trial
(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