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Curtain up on bold and lovely Anna

film of the week

anna karenina (12A, general release, 130 minutes)

Director: Joe Wright Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Emily Watson

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Curtain up on bold and lovely Anna

Joe Wright could never be called unambitious. In films like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Hanna, he has tried, and sometimes failed, to break free of the shackles of dialogue and tell his stories visually and lyrically. Even his failures (the dreadful Soloist) have been honest ones in the sense that he's fallen while reaching for something original and fresh.

For most directors, just taking on Leo Tolstoy's bewilderingly complex masterpiece Anna Karenina would be enough; after all, it's gotten the better of at least half a dozen other filmmakers who've tried. But Wright has set himself the extra challenge of using a potentially disastrous theatrical framing device.

As the film opens, a curtain rises to reveal a busy set decorated in the grand Imperial Russian style, and through this the actors begin to move. The film doesn't stay stage-bound, and a variety of sets and even the occasional location are used, but time and again Wright and his actors remind us that we are watching a performance.

It's an interesting approach, and one I suspect Wright chose because it would create an operatic, almost balletic atmosphere and allow him to gallop forward at will through the stodgier aspects of Tolstoy's story, but it's going to get right up some people's noses.

Indeed this looks doomed to be one of those films that divides punter and critic, and sides were heatedly taken after the press screening I attended.

But I must say I went with the storybook framework, and think that overall Wright and his writer Tom Stoppard have done a wonderfully imaginative job of conveying the novel's emotional essence.

What's most striking about the film is its constant and intoxicating sense of movement and momentum, which draws us into Anna Karenina's unravelling life as she shoots willfully towards tragedy.

Keira Knightley can be a stiff and mannered actress, but she gets the tone just right here and allows us to feel sympathy for a woman who's her own worst enemy.

Anna is a wealthy Saint Petersburg beauty who's on her way to Moscow to plead the case of her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) to his estranged wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) when she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson) on the train. Their fascination is mutual, and afterwards Anna finds she's unable to get Vronsky out of her mind.

She's married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a brilliant statesman and social reformer some 20 years her senior and with whom she has a son. Till now their marriage has been dull rather than actively unhappy, but when Vronsky begins to pursue Anna, she enters a period of unstable delirium that will change her life forever.

Many previous dramatisations of Tolstoy's novel have concentrated on the Anna-Vronsky love story at the expenses of the other sub plots, but Wright and Stoppard don't make this mistake.

Oblonsky's marital problems are rendered perhaps a little too comic by the excellent Matthew Macfadyen, who looks and sounds like he stumbled on to the set from a nearby Gilbert and Sullivan production. But due attention is given to the story of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a high-minded landowner and the novel's conscience.

Wright skips from scene to scene with exquisite elegance, and he and Tom Stoppard make it possible to sympathise with every single character in the story, which is part of the book's point. Most sympathy of all must be extended to Anna, a poor lost soul who breaks society's rules and finds out too late that there's no way back.

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