October Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 7 years ago

In a London preview screening of his last, unjustly underrated film Hanna, British director Joe Wright enthusiastically expressed his excitement about shooting a Tom Stoppard screenplay. While the latter is a proven master of his game, it is Wright who should be congratulated for what he has done with the playwright’s words.

But first, a confession. I have never read Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, nor have I seen the countless screen adaptations. The closest I ever came to the material was the one episode of Anna-Vronsky in 7 Khoon Maaf. But perhaps this is the best way to enjoy a film, going in to see it without any expectations or prejudice, with no basis for comparison. And Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is highly inventive, original and an aesthetic delight. In fact, it is probably among the best films released so far this year in terms of its aesthetics.

Keira Knightley plays the lead role, a Russian socialite married to Jude Law’s Alexei, a government official. She has a high standing in society, until she is involved in an affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), who has relentlessly pursued her, and from then on things fall apart. Alexei attempts a cover-up of the affair by trying to dismiss rumours that have been doing the rounds and working on his relationship. Alas, a pregnant-with-Vronsky’s-child Anna won’t have any of it; she confesses to her infidelity. Alexei, naturally heart-broken, leaves, taking with him their only child. Meanwhile, the shame gradually eats away at Anna, leading to her inevitable doom.

There are a couple of interesting subplots running alongside the main love-triangle, such as Anna’s brother Oblonsky’s own infidelity early on in the film, serving as a precursor to future events. Also, Kitty, a young friend of Anna’s and sister-in-law to Oblonsky, is entangled in a love triangle herself.

What makes Anna Karenina particularly memorable is the acting, especially of Jude Law as Alexei, the betrayed husband. He knows how to use his eyes to full effect in this performance. Domhnall Gleeson, as Levin, is another revelation and he should be seen in many more films. Alicia Vikander, who was already featured in another costume drama this year, the sumptuous Danish film A Royal Affair, shows her talent here; she’s Swedish, playing a Russian character, all the while maintaining a perfect British accent. Indian actress Tannishta Chatterjee appears in a very brief role and that too, accompanied by Indian background music, which seems rather out of place in the film. It is possible that Joe Wright was subliminally influenced by his father-in-law, musical maestro Ravi Shankar — hence the Indian element in the film.

By all accounts, Anna Karenina largely stays true to Tolstoy’s novel, but simultaneously it is a work of art on its own. Employing Brechtian techniques to distance the viewer from the set, the characters and the story could have been disastrous, were it not for the masterful direction by Joe Wright and equally vital editing by Melanie Oliver, which make this theatre-like style work scene after scene. The initial few minutes are challenging, because in recent memory there hasn’t been such a novel approach to filmmaking, but ultimately this unique approach turns into a rewarding cinematic experience.

Anna Karenina, the film, deserves to be lauded for trying to offer something refreshing, rather than being just another ‘true blue’ adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written.

This review was originally published in the October issue of Newsline.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany