Anna Karenina * *
Cert 12A, 130 mins
It was Pirates of the Caribbean that made Keira Knightley a star but it was Pride & Prejudice (2005) that set her on the path to becoming a credible actress.
So no one can blame her for accepting director Joe Wright’s return invitation to play another great literary heroine, Anna Karenina.
He even brought her Mr Darcy along for the cinematic ride, casting Matthew Macfadyen as her womanising brother, Oblonksy.
But the tormented Anna is a colder kettle of fish than the spirited Lizzy Bennet.
Loving yet hypocritical, passionate yet tormented, Keira’s Anna is both ‘heroine and anti heroine’, a woman who abandons her own life and child for lust and love and is ultimately undone by it.
Adapted from Tolstoy’s 1877 novel by Tom Stoppard, Wright’s Anna K is stunning to look at.
Not just the luminous Keira, who looks like she has stepped from the pages of Russian Vogue, but all the costumes and sets as well.
He has staged it as if it is in a theatre, the actors wandering about on and back stage as if they are in ordinary streets with life being played out amid the props and backcloths.
It is strange at first as one waits for the film to open out, yet it does so only occasionally.
What Wright accomplishes within these curious confines is often truly remarkable, even sending a horse race thundering across the boards.
But this intrigue also keeps the audience at a distance, reminding us that we are watching merely players and preventing us from truly engaging with Anna, her dissatisfaction with her dull marriage to the honourable and well-respected Karenina (Jude Law), and willingness to be swept away with a glance from Vronsky’s limpid blue eyes.
Vronsky himself has been transformed from the dark and dangerous figure of the novel to a gilded youth with golden cherubic curls, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
While he and Anna make a spectacularly pretty pair, this Vronsky seems out of his depth at dealing with the morphine-induced mood-swings of an older woman who, having won her prize at the cost of her son and position in society, is tormented by the idea that he will grow distracted and bored, lured away by youth, beauty and a title.
There is also the parallel romance of Kitty and Levin, the farmer who wins back the Princess after she is spurned by Vronsky.
Though it does not have the melodrama of Anna and Vronsky, it is far deeper and more affecting, a near wordless scene with child’s building blocks wonderfully touching.
It is easier to be moved by the sub-plots, to wonder how much better the film might have been had Kelly Macdonald played Anna rather than her cuckolded sister in law (infidelity seems to be a family failing).
We marvel not at what it is, but what it could have been. AJ
Lawless * * *
Cert 18, 116 mins
Few films have arrived with such a sense of expectation this year as John Hillcoat’s Lawless.
A starry cast and some ultra-positive publicity quotes had me almost frothing at the gills en route.
The story is all about three brothers making illegal liquor in the Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia – a dangerous semi-rural place where, if people aren’t brewing dodgy booze, they fancy a share of the profits.
While local law enforcers have turned a blind eye towards the activities of Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), things change with the arrival of Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) from Chicago.
The film is taglined ‘When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes’, but as a welcomely unheroic picture it rarely threatens to truly take off.
Lawless is never as misconceived and as awkwardly shot as Michael Mann’s city-based Public Enemies (2009).
But sub-plot stories involving preacher’s girl Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) and dancer Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) are distractions to the masculine main event.
While Jack, for example, wants to emulate a well-dressed mobster called Floyd Banner, Gary Oldman is grossly underused.
Hardy seems to be growling again like the villain in The Dark Knight Rises – only mercifully without Bane’s mask this time – while his character Forrest’s legendary invulnerability seems far-fetched for this style of cinema without a larger-than-life star such as John Wayne playing him.
Like Hillcoat’s own The Proposition (2005), which also starred Pearce, I left wanting more.
When the final credits rolled, I felt as if I’d spent £1,000 on shares at 10am only to see the price fall to £900 by the end of a nervous day’s trading. GY
The Possession * *
Cert 12A, 92 mins
One of the benefits of distributors not offering a traditional regional press preview for a new release is that it gives me a chance to do the rounds.
And so I turned up at Touchwood’s Cineworld Solihull where, in common with Odeon New Street, the friendly box office has been obliterated.
So you either wait to purchase a ticket behind someone buying enough sugar to sink a battleship.
Or you try to work out how to use a faceless, car park-style ticket machine.
Once I’d understood where you place your debit card and in which direction etc, I was on my way up the escalator into the dark recesses of the upstairs foyer, clearly designed by someone with bat-like habits.
I entered the screen just as the film was about to start (I love such perfect timing) and thought I was the only person in the auditorium as I took a perfect seat on the front row of the main block.
Within five minutes I heard stupid laughter from each back corner and wondered if such enviable immaturity would last.
It did. Someone even threw something that sounded like a bottle top in my direction.
That experience didn’t raise a hair on the back of my neck any more than the film, which has been produced by Sam Raimi (the director of The Evil Dead and Spider-Man trilogy) along with an overkill committee of more than a dozen others.
The Possession is a by-numbers exorcism thriller, about a girl who takes a box home that is possessed by something nastier than Simon Cowell.
Except the numbers aren’t consistent and this seems to be about three movies in one, jumping themes whenever there’s a need to compensate for the lack of an intelligent script.
Quality actors like Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan try their best but are left high and dry by the hokum.
What’s that old saying: ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law?’
In this film, it’s the sound effects and an often impressive one-note-at-a-time score which are doing the majority of the work.
There’s never a pause for silence to truly unsettle.
One lad even came down the aisle to see if I was really there and on the way out I later asked him why.
“Oh, I didn’t see you come in,” he spluttered.
How wonderful if he’d thought I’d come out of the screen to sit in the audience!
More like he was bored. And had just fancied stretching his legs. GY
The Wedding Video * *
Cert 15, 94 mins
Like Judge Dredd 3D which is out on Friday, this is an Entertainment film the which the distributor didn’t want the regional press to see before release – even though it is set in Cheshire and has been made by Tim Firth and Nigel Cole, the writer / director team behind Calendar Girls.
That’s the ‘British film industry’ for you.
The film leaves Empire Great Park after today, Thursday, ready for week-long runs at the Warwick Arts Centre from Friday and at the MAC from Saturday.
It’s not a bad production, but the excitement of its concept soon wears off – largely because wedding movies are so old hat these days. And who wears old hats at a wedding?
Often shot on hand-held cameras, The Wedding Video is an ambitious but rather odd combination of styles.
Part of the experience combines footage a best man is shooting for the intended happy couple, combined with the more official, steadier material taken by a professional hired by the mother-in-law.
Unfortunately, the script is stuffed with every cliché known to the marrying kind.
Some scenes are episodic and conclude later with explanations that appear as stills. Not very cinematic.
Even worse, the ratio dictates that The Wedding Video only uses a proportion of a fixed-size screen – so it feels a bit like going to a multiplex for a ‘big picture experience’ only to find you’ve ended up in a mate’s furnished garage watching an old cine movie.
The daft thing is I had to pay extra to watch this in Empire’s ‘luxury’ Screen 13, even though the film was almost at the end of its run and looks cheap.
For my money (£7) I discovered that Screen 13 has large individual seats of a kind I’ve not tried before.
The base slides and the back reclines, so they are like a combination of Showcase’s rocking chairs crossed with Star City’s Gold Class electrically-powered recliners.
Since of the above three styles of chair have good lower back support, they turn out not be as comfortable as you initially expect. But you do get a cup-holder for each hand depending on your persuasion – left, right or both at once.
Once again, someone has had a good idea for developing modern cinema as a better alternative to sitting at home in front of a TV set. Alas! The only way these chairs would be a snug fit is if you are about 25 stone and can jam yourself into the framework.
All of which means that the energetic efforts of Lucy Punch (Saskia), Rufus Hound (Raif) and Robert Webb (Tim) to entertain were rather lost in a film that will one day be better suited to your telly.
Good coffee, though. GY