Anna Karenina (2012)

There’s nothing wrong with giving a classic story a new context. As we saw recently with Coriolanussometimes a text can really benefit from a new setting and style. The important thing here is that there is a reason for it – with that Shakespeare rendering, the purpose was to make the text more accessible, to bring momentum to a plot that’s in danger of getting drowned. In that respect it worked well.

Not so with Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright’s take on Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel of love, marriage and adultery in late 19th-century Russia. Keira Knightley is his actress of choice, and she’s here again the lead role; the supporting cast scattered with British names familiar to television viewers there. Then there’s Kelly Macdonald in a relatively small role, underused because by definition she’s underused in every film she’s in. What an unflashy, subtle, brilliant actress she is. The film doesn’t so much update the story as put much of it in a new context. That new context is a theatre.

Yes, a theatre. Some crowd scenes are so self-consciously artificial and choreographed it wouldn’t be a surprise if the cast were to break into song. Scenes take place back stage which then becomes the house the scene is meant to be in. An intense horse-racing scene is cleverly staged; that last word being the key one. It’s all very clever.

And utterly pointless. It’s hard enough to come to grips with the dramatic emotions of the over-privileged in a country full of grinding poverty a century and a bit ago, and pointing up the artificiality of it all doesn’t help at all. The point of this maybe to bring home how separated the privileged and the poor are, but if that’s the case it’s lost in the artifice. It’s all very clever, and that’s the problem; cleverness and wisdom are very different, and this film badly lacks the latter. Like Joe Wright’s breakthrough adaptation of Atonement, which featured a technically brilliant tracking shot for no apparent reason other than to get people talking about his own skill, this seems to be little more than an exercise in putting an idea into practice simply because the idea has been had. The device distances us from the story, keeping the emotions at least one remove away.

I’ve felt this way about most of Joe Wright’s films; he’s clearly talented and clever. The problem is that he’s took keen to show us that, rather than putting that talent and intelligence to work on the deceptively difficult job of simply telling a story.

I rated this film 6/10 on and 2.5/5 on

I watched this film at home on television