Saturday 20 January 2018

A real Russian tragedy

Knightley shines but the film's no classic, says George Byrne

ANNA KARENINA Drama. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthrew Macfayden, Alicia Vikander, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams. Directed by Joe Wright. Cert 12A

That Count Leo Tolstoy's tragic heroine Anna Karenina is the focus of a story which transcends borders and even language can be measured by the fact that eight versions of the novel made it to the screen between 1910 and 1919 alone. Since then, there have been many more versions for both film and TV, the great Greta Garbo taking on the role twice, while a decent enough 1997 version used authentic locations in St Petersburg and Moscow and had Sophie Marceau in the lead.

Given his excellent record in literary adaptations for the cinema with Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Joe Wright looked an ideal fit for another tilt at the tale, especially now that his leading lady of choice Keira Knightley is the right age for the part, so how did things go so badly wrong?

A great cast (mostly), a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, typically excellent costume design and cinematography are all here but the whole is infinitely less than the sum of the constituent parts.

The first problem is that by setting much of the action in a theatre, there's a forced quirkiness and artificiality about the way the film unfolds. This is compounded by a bizarre tone of almost panto jollity for the first hour or so, which had me thinking I was watching a Baz Luhrmann spoof of Woody Allen's Love and Death. Surely not what Wright and Stoppard had in mind.

Knightley is excellent as the frustrated wife of diligent government official Alexei Karenin (a wonderfully understated Jude Law) who risks her standing in Imperial Russian society and, ultimately, her sanity by embarking on an illicit affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), which is where we encounter problem number two.

The character of Vronsky is meant to be dark and dangerous, whereas here he's played by an actor way too young for the role. In the 1997 version, Sean Bean looked dark and dangerous, the kind of brooding rake who could lead a woman down a very wrong path indeed, whereas every time Taylor-Johnson appears on screen I kept wondering what the hell a young Eric Idle was doing here. Unconvincing to say the least.

One should certainly applaud Wright and his cast and crew for taking an unconventional approach to such an epic and complex story but when the core relationship and tone are so off then the film, like Anna herself, is ultimately doomed. A pity. HHIII

LAWLESS Drama. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke. Directed by John Hillcoat. Cert 18

The prospect of John Hillcoat reuniting with his screenwriter of choice Nick Cave (the pair having previously collaborated on The Proposition and The Road) on a violent tale of bootlegging brothers in Prohibition-era Virginia certainly looked like it had the potential to be one of the films of the autumn but is a by-the-numbers gangster flick.

The Bondurant brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clark) run a nice little earner in the Virginia hills, supplying illegal liquor to people and bribing cops to turn a blind eye.

However, the youngest brother Jack (LaBeouf) has ambitions beyond their cosy little set-up and begins to get flashy and attracts the attention of government agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a borderline psycho who makes it his aim to take the clan down.

The film looks great, Pearce and Hardy are clearly enjoying themselves -- as is an underused Gary Oldman as a bigtime city gangster -- and the violence is ferocious but Lawless never really hits the spot. HHHII

THAT'S MY BOY Comedy. Starring Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Leighton Meester, Vanilla Ice, Tony Orlando, James Caan, Susan Sarandon. Directed by Sean Anders. Cert 16

Just when you thought Jack and Jill had scraped the bottom of the Sandler slurry pit, along comes That's My Boy to dig a whole new layer for his brand of alleged comedy to occupy.

Here, he plays Donny Berger, a moronic Boston airhead who achieved notoriety in the '80s by having an affair with his schoolteacher. She became pregnant and was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Fast-forward to the present and he's in trouble with the IRS but sees a way out if he can persuade his estranged son (Andy Samberg), who's about to marry into money, to help him out.

It's a repellent, vile, crude, excruciatingly unfunny excuse for a movie -- and that's before we get to the incest and randy granny parts. Adam Sandler may you burn in hell. IIIII

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES Documentary. Directed by Lauren Cranfield. Cert Club

In recent months documentaries have provided some of the most interesting films to see -- Searching for Sugar Man and The Imposter leading the way -- and The Queen of Versailles is a worthy addition.

The sheer vulgarity about the way mega-wealthy David Siegel and his wife Jacqueline set about building the largest private residence in the USA, based on the Palace of Versailles, is interesting enough, but during filming the credit crisis hit and director Lauren Cranfield found herself with a completely different and even more fascinating film on her hands. Definitely recommended. HHHHI

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