Its stylings are stunning, but Keira’s too kiddish

To adapt for the screen a universally celebrated 800-page masterpiece about adultery, jealousy and the crushing reality of social stigmas in imperial Russia is a daunting task no matter how you look at it. Like Hamlet or Oedipus, Anna Karenina has long achieved what so few literary characters can – and I don’t mean a film, stage, ballet or opera adaptation. Rather, Anna Karenina has achieved cultural immortality. You can’t blame a reputation-concerned writer for not wanting to touch it.


But to writer Tom Stoppard, the renowned British playwright, this offer simply sounded interesting. Though his script cuts a few corners for the sake of running time, most noticeably in subplot situations, Stoppard presents narrative solutions that give coherence and depth to an intricately-woven ensemble plot. On the whole economical and powerful, yet with plenty of zingy metaphors, the script is brought to life with stylistic sincerity and plenty of thespian whims by Wright (Atonement and Pride and Prejudice) and a sparkling cast.


The tale is the familiar one of matrimonial love grown stale and a passionate affair offering temporary relief. Stiva (an energetic Macfadyen) and his sister Anna (Knightley) are both wealthy, yet elicit vastly different responses from high society – while Anna is quite well-liked, Stiva is less so. The romance-laden subplots are intelligently orchestrated, creating a design for which the work has often received praise.


It has become customary to see Knightley playing the lead in period films (Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess etc) but while her heart is definitely in it here, her unmistakable 21st century, so-smooth-as-to-look-airbrushed features give us an Anna too angelic for her own good. In perfect Hollywood spirit, Knightley’s youthful beauty seems to have landed her the role, not her quiet complexity. After Stiva commits infidelity and Anna attempts to counsel his wife Dolly (played by the comparatively adult-looking Macdonald), Knightley’s androgynous frame appears capable of little more than sympathising. A fully-realised Anna would take a deeper kind of star quality.


That said, you’ll find plenty to like if you’re looking for extravagant costumes, kaleidoscopic choreography, eye-popping set pieces and the dazzle and darkness of irresistible passion. The classic story still speaks to us.


Anna Karenina (11)

Dir: Joe Wright; US drama, 2012, 130 mins, Keira Knightley, Matthew Mcfadyen, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald
Premiered May 2
Playing nationwide