I’m not going to pretend I’ve read Leo Tolstoy.
Nor am I going to pretend that I’ve seen all or indeed any of the previous screen adaptations of his acclaimed serialised novel, ‘Anna Karenina’.
It’s always been one of those novels that I have meant to read. But let’s face it, there’s simply too many classic novels, plays and movies to catch up on and too many other demands in our day to day lives.
Maybe, one day.
What I do know is ‘Anna Karenina’ has been a favourite of film and television directors for many decades.
One of the earliest screen adaptations of Tolstoy’s classic was a 1911 Soviet silent movie adaptation by Maurice Maitre – it was remade by the Russians three years later by Vladimir Gardin.
But some of the best known versions are the 1935 movie by director Clarence Brown starring Greta Garbo, Frederick March and Freddie Bartholomew (Garbo had played the title role earlier in a 1926 silent film ‘Love’) and Julien Duvivier’s 1948 adaptation starring Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson and Skibereen’s Kieron Moore.
Over the years, Claire Bloom, Jacqueline Bisset and Sophie Marceau have tackled the title role, with Sean Connery, Christopher Reeve and Sean Bean taking on the role of Karenina’s lover, the dashing Count Vronsky.
And so, despite this cinematic pedigree, I have come to Joe Wright’s glossy movie adaptation with little preconception of how Tolstoy’s novel should be depicted.
Adapted for the cinema by Tom Stoppard, Keira Knightley gamely takes on the role of Anna Karenina, the wife of a buttoned up of a government mandarin, Alexei Karenina (Jude Law) and mother to a nine year old boy.
After learning her brother, ‘Stiva’ Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyean) has broken his wife Dolly’s (Kelly McDonald) heart with an extra-marital affair, she travels by steam train from St Petersburg to Moscow to rescue their marriage.
On her journey she encounters the Countess Vronskaya (Olivia Williams) and when they reach their destination, Anna also meets the Countess’s son, the rakish soldier, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor Johnson) who, it emerges, is wooing her teenage sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
Anna and Vronsky immediately fall for each other and their infatuation intensifies when he breaks Kitty’s heart at a society ball with his unsubtle and scandalous pursuit of Anna.
Prior to the ball, Kitty has spurned the romantic overtures of Stiva’s friend, Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) because of her longing for Vronsky.
Caught between her desires and the expectations of the Russian aristocraticy, Anna succumbs to temptation and embarks on a passionate affair with Vronsky.
But her life begins to unravel when she becomes pregnant and can no longer conceal her feelings for him in public.
Wright and Stoppard’s gimmick in this version is to set much of the action in a theatre – a bit like Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’ but nowhere near as camp.
The device works because the expected codes of behaviour in the theatre match those demanded by the Russian high society.
As with his 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, Wright demonstrates how is intelligent and visually imaginative he is as a director.
One of the most striking things is the way he momentarily freezes much of the background action in the high society balls that Anna and Vronsky attend, so you can focus on the principal characters – just as you would in a theatre.
There’s also a thrilling horse race, with real horses, on the stage.
But the movie really soars when it ventures out of the confines of the theatre into the lush Russian countryside, particularly for the scenes involving Levin. Armagh’s Seamus McGarvey should be rewarded next year for his gorgeous cinematography with another Academy Award nomination.
At times, Wright’s film also reminds you of David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and Anthony Minghella’s ‘Cold Mountain’ – it is romantic in subject matter and style, intense at times, majestic, sprawling and very, very wintry.
But if there is a weakness, it is the performances of the two lovers at the heart of the film.
It’s not that Keira Knightley turns in a poor lead performance (at times she impresses, particularly when Anna is falling apart) but she and Aaron Taylor Johnson simply don’t convince when they share the screen.
Knightley pouts and quivers her lips occasionally to convey lust and Taylor Johnson does a mad stare from time to time but they’re not Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh or Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. There’s little fizz. In fact, it’s a bit like guzzling flat champagne.
Having said that, the movie is worth the price of admission for its technical bravura and its host of strong supporting performances.
Fresh from his impressive turn in James Marsh’s ‘Shadow Dancer’, Domhnall Gleeson once again demonstrates why he is one of the brightest acting talents to emerge In the last few years, as Levin reels from his rejection by Kitty.
The always reliable Kelly McDonald, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson, as the outraged socialite Countless Lydia, impress.
Matthew MacFadyean is suitably oafish as Stiva (recalling Jim Broadbent in ‘Moulin Rouge’) and Alicia Vikander signals that she could well be an actress to keep an eye on in years to come.
However the most impressive performance is that of Jude Law.
Forsaking his usual screen heartthrob persona, he is stiff, buttoned up, almost priestly and sympathetic as the cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenina.
‘Anna Karenina’ has “Oscar bait” written all over it and it could well feature strongly in the nomination lists during awards season early next year.
Jacqueline Durran’s sumptuous costumes and the art and set direction should be contenders around Oscar time along with McGarvey.
Wright’s film is as rich, easy on the eye, sugary and satisfying as a pavlova. But this pavlova is simply too soft in the centre.