Director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightley have formed an interesting partnership, with which they are tackling some of the great tortured romances. Knightley has played Elizabeth Bennett for Wright, navigating Pride And Prejudice before finding true love, and Cecilia Tallis, of Ian McEwan's Atonement, whose romance is undone by another's deceit. It's not surprising that they've now found their way to Anna Karenina.
Tolstoy's epic essays love in all its forms – grand passion, pure devotion, amour fou, pragmatic suffering. At its heart is the tale of the aristocrat in 1870s St Petersburg, married to the older man and government minister Karenin (Jude Law), whose open affair with the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) makes her the scourge of society.
The novel has been adapted countless times for film and television, but it's a complex piece and a difficult nut to crack. Anna is less heroine than anti-heroine, sometimes insufferable as she pursues the love affair that will prove her undoing. If one can't buy into her experience as some sort of tragedy, then the venture is doomed. And I'm afraid that for all its stylistic and narrative ambition, Wright's film doesn't deliver in this regard. In fact, it left me cold.
Writer Tom Stoppard makes a decent fist of the material, in particular by drawing out the cross-currents with the tale's other relationships – the marriage of the shameless philanderer Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and long-suffering Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), and the extended courtship by the idealist Levin of Dolly's younger sister Kitty. The result is a focused discourse on love and fidelity, trust and forgiveness.
The problem lies not with the script, but its execution. The first thing you notice about the film – and can never stop noticing – is its theatricality. It opens like a play, with a curtain rising over a stage, after which much of the action takes place within this crumbling theatre, whose space is constantly transformed before our eyes, from an office into a restaurant, a ballroom, a train station, a race course.
Such artifice has a thematic purpose, to show how in the upper-class society of Tolstoy's Russia rigid social codes are accompanied by superficiality; everything is done for show. If Anna had cuckolded her husband with a degree of discretion, she might have been spared her ostracism; by cheating on him publically she breaks the rules.
It can be sublimely inventive. For the horse race when Anna reveals her true feelings to Karenin, real horses gallop across the stage, the sounds of their hooves indistinguishable from those of Anna's fan and her beating heart. The effect is exhilarating, on a par with Wright's Dunkirk sequence in Atonement. But the approach is also very distracting. It takes an age to adjust to the milieu, by which time it's too late to start caring. And, dare one say it, a Russian epic deserves some great Russian landscapes.
It doesn't help that we can't buy into the leads. Knightley gives it her all, but just feels too young, and Taylor-Johnson presents little more than a callow narcissist, a poor relation to Terence Stamp's Sergeant Troy in Far From The Madding Crowd. Law does possess weight, making his dull and by no means blameless cuckold sympathetic, and Macfadyen (Darcy opposite Knightley's Bennett) is a comic blessing as the incorrigible Oblonsky.
John Hillcoat's prohibition drama Lawless casts us back to his Australian western, The Proposition. This too is a violent tale of the moral no-man's-land between lawmen and criminals, with script and music again by Nick Cave, and a lip-smacking cast. But it won't linger in the memory like its predecessor.
It's adapted from the historical novel The Wettest County In The World, which recounted the misadventures of author Matt Bondurant's moonshining forebears in Virginia. The film's Bondurant brothers are led by the indestructible Forrest, another of Tom Hardy's growing catalogue of intelligent heavies, as they attempt to retain their illicit business against the threats of city gangster Floyd Banner (a flamboyant, though criminally underused Gary Oldman) and the new cop in town, psychopathic dandy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).
Pearce is so persuasively evil that it's easy to side with the "bad guys", who at least know how to treat their women (Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska). However, the truth is we're not that bothered. The film is well-crafted, handsome, but only fitfully dramatic. On this occasion Hillcoat and Cage are playing at the genre, without really understanding its soul.
Fans of comic books and futuristic action movies will enjoy Dredd, a grungy, pistol-packing romp based on one of Britain's longest-running comic characters. Karl Urban may be best known as the horseman Eomer in Lord Of The Rings or Bones in Star Trek, but the role that gives the clue to his performance as Dredd is the Russian assassin on the trail of Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy. He's equally relentless and taciturn here, as the all-in-one cop/judge/executioner of the crime-ridden metropolis Mega City One.
This is a confined-space cat-and-mouse number, as Dredd and his rookie sidekick (Olivia Thurlby) are trapped inside a massive tower block along with a drug gang led by the magnificently malign Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). The scenario's limitations are well compensated by imaginative camerawork and a stream of dry humour. While never revealing his face, Urban dispenses a mean Eastwood impersonation with Dredd's one-liners. Asked how his night went, he merely quips, "the perps were uncooperative".
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