Knightley fails to lift an unconvincing Karenina

Cert 18 | By Alex Dymoke

We are just two minutes into this bleak, ultra-violent comic book adaptation when our helmeted anti-hero has blasted a flare into his criminal adversary’s mouth, burning and exploding his head from the inside.

The 18-rated Dredd declines the family friendly middle-market targeted by most comic-book franchises. It’s about as far as you can get from Judge Dredd, the 1995 Sylvestre Stallone travesty. Director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, 28 Days Later) have come up with a stylish and brutal adaptation that arrives with a stamp of approval from comic-writer John Wagner, Judge Dredd’s creator.

After investigating what seemed like a regular homicide, Dredd (Karl Urban) and his rookie apprentice (Olivia Thirlby) are locked in a tower-block by Lena Headey’s terrifying Ma-Ma, a sadistic prostitute turned drug baron who we are told became leader of the Ma-Ma clan after “feminizing” an abusive pimp with her teeth.

The city is hooked on “Slo-Mo”, and Ma-Ma controls the supply. Slo-Mo slows down time perception to one per cent its normal speed, giving Travis an excuse to shoot genuinely trippy slow-motion sequences that serve as blissful respite from the otherwise unrelenting action.

Travis’s Dredd – who never once takes his helmet off – successfully avoids the Hollywood clichés that marred the Stallone version. There is no romantic subplot, and despite some good jokes, there is no comic sidekick to punctuate the action sequences.

But at a slender 96 minutes, it feels a little insubstantial. The action never really leaves Ma-Ma’s tower block, so we don’t get a sense of the vast dystopia that is Mega City One, population 800m. One suspects that it’s a lack of money, rather than a lack of ideas, that prevents this movie from being great. For all the snappy dialogue and explosive violence, it is ultimately limited – “feminized”, even – by its budget.

Cert 12A | By Alex Dymoke

Joe Wright’s ambitious conceit for his adaptation of Tolstoy’s tale of doomed love is to set the majority of the story in a grand old Russian theatre. Ice rinks, horse races and railway stations all appear against the backdrop of a gilded stage.

Visually at least, Wright’s vision is a success. There is a choreographed fluidity as stage-sets fold down, opening up into unexpected rooms, with characters moving from bedroom to ballroom in a swirl of theatrical props. The effect is dazzling and disorientating.

Keira Knightley also looks the part as Karenina, a St Petersburg society belle married to dourly pious Russian politician Karenin (Jude Law). On a trip to Moscow to visit her philandering brother, she is introduced to Vronsky, a dashing young cavalry officer. There is instant sexual chemistry, and soon their lives are engulfed by a ruinous affair that titillates and outrages the chattering classes of St Petersburg.

Dario Marianelli’s score, Tom Stoppard’s screenplay, Sarah Greenwood’s production design, Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson themselves: Wright’s film is full of beautiful things. But Anna Karenina is a love story. Its success ultimately depends not on surface elegance but emotive impact. Here his adaptation falls down.

At first the mannered awkwardness of the two leads complements the ornate theatre-world created by Wright. Knightley is in her element at the beginning of Karenina’s affair, as she is given multiple opportunities to perform her trademark “stolen glance across crowded room followed by sharp intake of breath”. But as Karenina’s life unravels, Knightley doesn’t quite carry off the transition from poise to despair.

She is nowhere near as unconvincing, however, as the subject of her affections, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky. Tolstoy depicts Vronsky as a “squarely built dark man” with “shortly cropped black hair”. Odd then, that Wright has him in a white suit with shaggy blond hair and a pathetically wispy moustache that has both the thickness and dimensions of an eyebrow.

In this camp, gift-wrapped form, the story fails to deliver the requisite emotional hammer-blow. The stylistic bombast distracts from what makes the story a classic: the tragic fate of a protagonist who is compelled to sacrifice everything for love. All eyes should be on Knightley’s Karenina, but in the end she is upstaged by… a stage.