Film review by John Campbell
Adapting a revered work of an earlier period, in this case nineteenth-century Russia, from the page to the screen inescapably involves matching – or contrasting to enhance – style with content. Joe Wright has called on one of Britain’s pre-eminent playwrights, Tom Stoppard, to do the screenplay of Leo Tolstoy’s novel and the result is, not unexpectedly, stagey in the extreme.
Shot mostly on cut-out, evolving sets, this potentially claustrophobic approach is relieved by occasional sweeping rural vistas, but the overall effect of such lavish art direction within a confined space is akin to eating a king-size box of Godiva chocolates in one sitting.
The story, an age-old love triangle, will be familiar to most, but what surprises, despite its uber-contemporary tarting-up (the style is relentlessly Bazz Luhrmann), is how dated it has become. Though tragic for Anna, who defies the mores of society only to have her heart broken, today’s audiences might be less inclined to weep for her plight as shrug their shoulders with a ‘so what?’ and a desultory ‘get over it’ – Tolstoy’s aim was surely not melodrama.
On a personal level, I’ve always had trouble warming to Keira Knightley and her jutting jaw – she could plough a trough through the Siberian tundra with it – and found myself longing for that fateful steam train to be running on time. Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), wickedly handsome if a tad effete, seemed less of the cad than I remembered (it’s an age since I read the book), but Jude Law was outstanding as the cuckolded husband and Alicia Vikander drop-dead gorgeous as Kitty.
I wearied of it often, but Vronsky and Anna’s first dance and the racing scene in which Vronsky’s horse falls, among other set pieces, are sensational. The near-gleeful negativity with which the movie has been received by many in the cognoscenti is unwarranted and, though it lacks emotional involvement – it is too arch for that – it succeeds in transforming a rather dreary tale into something more easily embraced by our bangles- and baubles-loving pop culture.