Film review: Anna Karenina

by David Larsen / 31 January, 2013
To say that Keira Knightley is no Garbo is like saying an asteroid is no supernova; I have never seen her in a film without pining for a different casting decision, says David Larsen.
Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina: Keira Knightley is no Greta Garbo.


It is not as obviously absurd to film Anna Karenina as it is, say, to mime Beethoven’s Ninth. But at a certain point, the scale differential between a novel and a film amounts to an unbridgeable gulf. Tolstoy does not give you the option of extracting his tragic Anna from her tragedy-inducing context: if you want to put her on a screen, you need to get a universe of detail up there with her.

Many have tried. At least two dozen women have played Anna on screen over the past century, including Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. To say that Keira Knightley is no Garbo is like saying an asteroid is no supernova; I have never seen her in a film without pining for a different casting decision. But she’s adequate in this role, and that’s all she needs to be, because she has such good fortune in the people around her.

This includes an improbable number of supporting actors giving career-best performances; Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson all excel themselves as the significant men in Anna’s life. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and designers Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer confer a lush, expansive beauty on the film’s every fleeting frame – a necessary balance to the dizzying energy and momentum director Joe Wright gives the story.

Wright deserves praise for his achievement here, but he can’t take credit for the brilliant conceit that lets this film soar where other Anna Kareninas have trudged. For that, look to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.

How can you transplant the soul of such a vast book to a new medium? You can’t. So instead, borrow some fizz from the adaptation process itself, by flipping between two different kinds of adaptation: film a theatrical staging of the story, which keeps bursting out of its frame and turning into full-fledged cinema.

It seems an unlikely idea on the face of it, but just watch Stoppard dance. He finesses the crushing compression required to fit Tolstoy to the screen, so that he gains something as precious as what he has to sacrifice: the film feels fresh and alive, and at every turn it has the capacity to surprise.

Rating: 4/5

ANNA KARENINA, directed by Joe Wright

Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

The troubling rise of Australia's new Attorney-General
85835 2018-01-17 00:00:00Z World

The troubling rise of Australia's new Attorney-Gen…

by Bernard Lagan

The relatively young Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter has a track record in law and order that unsettles many.

Read more
The film-maker who risked death by sugar is fighting fit again
85890 2018-01-17 00:00:00Z Health

The film-maker who risked death by sugar is fighti…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For his documentary That Sugar Film, Damon Gameau consumed 40 teaspoons of the sweet stuff a day.

Read more
Auckland's best cafes 2018
84457 2018-01-17 00:00:00Z Dining

Auckland's best cafes 2018

by Metro

A swarm of new entrants elbow their way onto Metro's annual list of outstanding places for coffee and so much more.

Read more
Does anyone really know how to cut the number of deaths on our roads?
85708 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Does anyone really know how to cut the number of d…

by The Listener

The road toll for 2017 was 380 – 53 more than for 2016 and the highest figure since 2009.

Read more
How trauma incident data can be used to prevent future injuries
85876 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

How trauma incident data can be used to prevent fu…

by Donna Chisholm

On a map are hundreds of brightly coloured dots, each colour signifying a type of incident: red for assault, cyan for motorbike crashes.

Read more
Donald Trump appears to have the wits of Homer Simpson
85895 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z World

Donald Trump appears to have the wits of Homer Sim…

by Bill Ralston

Trump may be “stable” and “smart”, but Americans need to decide whether to fire their leader.

Read more
The often-windswept Neil Oliver is headed indoors for a live NZ show
85873 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z Culture

The often-windswept Neil Oliver is headed indoors …

by Russell Baillie

Neil Oliver's live shows are based on a prolific career of making the past come alive on television and in print.

Read more
Hilary Barry takes Mike Hosking’s spot on Seven Sharp
85857 2018-01-15 13:40:27Z Television

Hilary Barry takes Mike Hosking’s spot on Seven Sh…

by Katie Parker

Hilary Barry takes over Seven Sharp and ex-Green candidate Hayley Holt replaces her on Breakfast. But not all are happy at the seat shuffling.

Read more