It may be a film but it’s a British film and in British cinema the play’s the thing – even when it is a book. So for their Tolstoy adaptation director Joe Wright and scriptwriter Tom Stoppard have decided to do it as a play, filming almost the entire thing on a single soundstage.

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The film’s style is intense cine-theatrical artifice: scenes are acted out under a proscenium arch, characters wander backstage, curtains are lifted to reveal the move into a new scene and even train journeys and horse races become pieces of theatre.

I’m torn right down the middle about the film. It’s a bold interpretation but claustrophobic – after a while you long for a bit of air and the few exterior shots come as a relief. The desire to break free from the rut of British costume drama is understandable but what you gain in novelty you lose in drama. This feels more like a textual analysis than storytelling. The love between Karenina and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) doesn’t seem to be fuelled by any all-consuming passion, more an idle curiosity. I guess I am expected to mention Brecht around here but perhaps the real inspiration was to make a commercially viable Peter Greenaway film.

Keira Knightley is in many ways astutely cast as Karenina – everybody loves to see her suffer in posh frocks – but the repeated deployment of her wrinkle-nosed laugh and fanged smile would seem to be inadequate to the task. She is like a child playing with the grown-ups or Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder played straight. Yet there’s something to her. That face is such an odd, contradictory construction that its workings are rarely without interest.

Respectability

Wright seems to be cementing his position as a Sam Mendes mini-me. But while Mendes is able to splash easily around the whole gilded fish tank, moving effortlessly between theatre and Bond films, Wright always seems to be out of place. When he is making polite literary cinema (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) you sense he wants to be out with the lads; when he is making an action piece (Hanna) he seems to crave respectability.

He has a restless desire to bring something new to a project, but after five films you wonder if this exciting director is ever going to excite.

In AK his clever baubles shimmy and sparkle but they decorate a very small affair, a tragedy in a doll’s house.

ANNA KARENINA (12A)

Director: Joe Wright

Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen and Domhnall Gleeson

Length: 130 mins

**

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