Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. United Kingdom, 2012. , , Working Title Films. Screenplay by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Music by Dario Marianelli. Production Design by Sarah Greenwood. Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran. Film Editing by Melanie Oliver. Academy Awards 2012. Golden Globe Awards 2012. Toronto International Film Festival 2012.
Attempts to bring Leo Tolstoy’s enduring novel to the big screen have fizzled countless times, enough to make it seem a feckless pursuit; Garbo’s 1935 version is impressive enough as pared-down 1930s adaptations of complex novels go, but Vivien Leigh’s 1948 adaptation is drab, while the 1997 Sophie Marceau-Sean Bean vehicle is an absolute disaster. Meta-theatrical reinvention and the inclusion of a great playwright like Tom Stoppard on the script, however, makes a promise that this one for the most part delivers. Keira Knightley steps in front of Joe Wright’s camera for the third time as the doomed heroine who falls passionately in lust with a young soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is everything her dull husband (Jude Law, his handsomeness barely hidden under bad hair and fussy glasses) is not. When she decides to go beyond having a man on the side and actually tries to legitimize her relationship by leaving her husband and taking up residence with her soldier, she commits a cardinal sin that the upper crust of St. Petersburg cannot forgive; as one character succinctly puts it, her sin is dismissible, but her breaking societal rules is unpardonable. The twist in this version, however, is that the telling of it goes into self-reflexive storytelling, stunningly staged inside a decaying theatre that very blatantly places the novel’s setting within an artificial vanity fair whose participants are all actors playing parts. From time to time the story ventures into the great outdoors to reflect the personal passions of its characters, the open sky and snowy pastures actually increasing the claustrophobia, but as soon as any of the players are behaving in any way susceptible to judgment the proscenium arch returns and the backdrops are revolved between scenes. It’s a wonderful conceit, giving vitality and efficient plotting to a treatment that is looking not to hide behind aesthetic surface but to make that surface the basis of the story. Wright’s confidence in this measure begins to flag somewhere in the last third, unfortunately, and too many scenes without self-referential theatrical tricks make us forget the technique, focusing instead on the passionate plight of lovers whom we believed we weren’t supposed to care all that much about (and quite frankly, we are not). Thankfully it regains itself for a wonderful conclusion, leaving in the memory a series of sumptuous images (for every shot is perfectly gorgeous) and some rich performances, the best of them Domhnall Gleeson as a country nobleman who falls in love with a city aristocrat. Stoppard’s contribution ends up being strangely invisible, as none of the dialogue seems to have any of the richness expected from a pen so vibrant with the games and tricks the author loves to play on his audience, but the overall effect is a good one.