Bleak romantic tragedy fails to tug at heartstrings

editorial image

AS a cinematic experience the new version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Cert 12A) has much to recommend. Director Joe Wright has elected to present the story as a series of theatrical tableaux so that there is always something to catch the eye whether the frozen motion of dancers at a ball, a model train whizzing through a snowy scene or a phalanx of choreographed office drones.

Whether this treatment suits the telling of a story with an intense love triangle at its heart is open to question.

For the third time the director has cast Keira Knightley as his leading lady in a costume drama following Pride and Prejudice and The Atonement. Anna Karenina is the wife and mother who falls passionately for dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky and the ensuing scandal results in her being ostracized by Russian society.

Alas there isn’t much chemistry between Knightley and her co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson to make you understand why she is prepared to sacrifice everything for this love. It doesn’t help that the man playing Anna’s noble, upright but passionless husband is Jude Law who not so long ago would have been ideal casting for the smouldering moustachioed Vronksy.

He is among a notable supporting ensemble that also includes Matthew McFadyen as Karenina’s rakish brother, Kelly McDonald , Olivia Williams, Michelle Dockery and Emily Watson, as various Russian high society ladies who all stick to the stultifying rules of pre-Revolutionary Russian high society.

There are flashes of humour but this is an unremittingly bleak romantic tragedy and while many in the audience will be unfamiliar with its famous ending, they will guess that it is going to turn out badly.

Director John Hillcoat and writer-musician Nick Cave were responsible for the disturbingly violent Australian period revenge thriller The Proposition so one feared for the worst with the prospect of them collaborating on an American Prohibition era gangster film.

While there are a few of those staple gangster scenes of black jalopies and their occupants being riddled with tommy gun bullets and some nasty blood-spurting throat slitting, Lawless (Cert 18) seems comparatively restrained. Perhaps it helps that the characters are more engaging.

It is based on The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized account by Matt Bondurant of the exploits of his grandfather and brothers in the 1930s.

Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) Bondurant run a flourishing family moonshine business in Franklin County, Virginia, while the local cops turn a blind eye – until the arrival from Chicago of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes to stamp out the illegal local industry marked by the orange glow on the hillside from countless illegal stills.

The Bondurants are prepared to do whatever is necessary to fight for what is theirs. We are clearly meant to be on the side of these violent criminals and the film achieves this by weighing things rather in their favour.

Compared with swaggering big city gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and especially the sadistic and corrupt Rakes, played by Guy Pearce almost as a pantomime villain, these are men of honour. One suspects the truth was somewhat different.