All Pout and No Clout

Joe Wright's Karenina is well-scripted but too stagey and his Anna lacks depth

Peter Whittle

My very first review for Standpoint — in the now undoubtedly sought-after first issue — was of a Keira Knightley film, a dreary and now-forgotten biopic about Dylan Thomas called The Edge of Love. I’d never been much of a fan of Knightley, and in that piece I described her acting as self-conscious, and her brand of beauty as “pristine, boyish-limed and brittle”, i.e. the sort which appealed mostly to fashion editors. Her face too, while exquisite when in repose, I characterised as exposing the jagged grin of a Halloween pumpkin when required to grin or laugh.

Looking back, that seems harsh, rather bitchy and uncalled-for, although Knightley does bring out a similar reaction in many. Could it be the continued use of a pout that does it? Pouting is after all something which belongs to the vain, being as it is the personal acknowledgement of one’s sexual allure. It affects artless unawareness of course, but is perhaps the only facial expression which, in order to have any kind of meaning, requires others to be looking.  Male actors can almost never get away with it if they want to be taken seriously, but it’s considered quite acceptable as part of many actresses’ artillery. Scarlett Johansson has built a career on an especially plumped-up version of it (she has bedroom lips as opposed to bedroom eyes).

Knightley’s version has a more trembly, slightly hurt quality, which she puts to appropriate use as Anna Karenina in the latest screen version of this much-adapted classic. The slightly maniacal grin is still there too which, seen in close-up on a big screen, has the capacity to make you flinch, chiefly because it seems so at odds with the porcelain refinement of her features. If all this sounds as if I am unfairly hung up on this actress’s  physical attributes, it is perhaps because I am still trying to get a handle on the extent of her abilities as a leading lady; for that, with its particular set of requirements, is how she has been viewed from the very start of her short career, and it is certainly what is required in anybody taking on Tolstoy’s tragic heroine.

Knightley has certainly grown in stature in the four years since The Edge of Love. The ingénue quality is receding, the self-consciousness has lessened and there are signs here and there of a growing range. But it still does not quite add up to the sophistication and adultness needed in this part, and which was displayed by both Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh in the previous celebrated versions. The director here, Joe Wright, who guided her through Pride and Prejudice and then Atonement, certainly makes her look wonderful, helped by the sumptuous costumes, which she wears with a nonchalance and aplomb rare in most contemporary actresses. And, thanks to the superb photography lavished on her, she just occasionally manages to summon up memories of the goddesses of the golden era. Legendary glamour photographers of the Thirties such as George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull would certainly have made something of her raw material.

But what is still lacking is a sense of depth or hinterland. Passion here comes across as petulance; frustration and longing as peevishness. Watching Knightley’s Anna we never break free from a sense that this is one selfish, tiresome society wife in thrall to a silly infatuation. The effect, fatally, is that we don’t care enough what happens to her, thus wiping out at a stroke the power of the climatic event, perhaps the one incident most people know about this story.      

In fact there is a general lack of emotional involvement, which comes not from Tom Stoppard’s economical, clean screenplay but from the particular and very singular treatment given the book by the director. Wright has presented the whole thing within the confines of an ornate but somewhat dilapidated theatre (well, not quite the whole thing — he cheats a couple of times when the action briefly breaks out into sunny rural landscapes). Whether or not this decision was purely artistic or dictated by budgetary limitations, the effect is to stylise a story which, with its particular romantic and tragic sweep, requires no such bells or whistles. If the intention was to emphasise the stuffy restraints imposed by 19th-century Russian aristocratic society, then it is very heavy-handed; most of us after all are familiar with the old convention-thwarts-true-love cliché and don’t need it spelling out.  

If however it was to make it more visually arresting, then it certainly succeeds. Velvety, crimson and gold-lined, it is as rich and rococo as anything Baz Luhrmann might produce — indeed a couple of times I was reminded of the similarly theatre-bound Moulin Rouge! There are some audacious moments, such as a horse race on stage, and it has its own kind of tatty elegance. We are impressed with the inventiveness of it. But do we really need Anna Karenina to be visually interesting in this sense? Why take an epic 950-page masterpiece with all the cinematic possibilities that offers, and make it small and stagey? The desire of a director to impose his “vision” on such material is not only not a good enough reason, it actively gets in the way.                

 Alongside Knightley the other players strutting their stuff on these cramped boards offer varying degrees of support. Matthew MacFadyen as Anna’s womanising brother Oblonsky is engaging in a Falstaffian way, without having much to do, and, in sharp relief to the artifice around them, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander as Levin and Kitty are touchingly real and sincere. But as Vronsky, Anna’s dashing love-object, Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems hopelessly out of his depth. All breeches and blond hair, impossibly handsome and totally vacant, this Vronsky gives us no real clue as to why Anna would want to keep her famous appointment with the 6.30pm now arriving at platform one.

An honourable mention should however go to Jude Law, who a decade ago would have been playing Vronsky but was presumably deemed by central casting to be past it now. This actor, possibly one of the vainest in contemporary movies, has been “uglied up” to play Anna’s boring and cold-blooded husband Karenin, and a good job he does of it, to his credit. He occupies the still centre of the film, and by the end of it, if not exactly rooting for him you’re certainly reassessing him as potential husband material. Which surely tells us that this time round, something has gone badly wrong in the retelling.

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