“I thank God that the curse of love has been lifted from me.”
I first studied Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth Anna Karenina in my senior year of high school, writing several essays and a journal on the work. I still have that journal. I was assigned the novel again in my sophomore year of college, tearing through the book with a keener, more critical eye in a Russian literature class. Having seen numerous film versions of the classic novel, I had been waiting for a cinematic adaptation that would at once heighten the book’s social criticism, moral relativism and artifice, while paying more than scant attention to the book’s other main character, Constantine Levin. It was as if Joe Wright, in his first period piece since the masterful Atonement, heard my plea, and presented me with his accomplished new version of Anna Karenina.
For the uninitiated, this is one of the most famous love stories of all. Published in 1876, the central story follows socialite Anna Karenina. She is bored in her marriage to her officious husband and falls madly in lust, then love with the charming Count Vronsky. As imperialist Russian high society watches, she learns the social mores and cruel double standards where men’s indiscretions are permitted but women must remain virtuous, without free will. Things do not end well, to say the least, as Anna unravels in a long chronicle of a social suicide. Anna’s plight is contrasted with young Constantine “Kostya” Levin, an idealist from the same circles who flees its rigid confines to scythe fields with the peasants, slowly adopting what would become Communist ideals. Of course, he must learn to curb his romanticised political leanings with romantic love for Ekaterina, or “Kitty”, who was originally meant to be Vronsky’s intended. High society, like pop, will eat itself.
How prescient that Tom Stoppard wrote this film’s screenplay. Stoppard’s seminal work Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead won the Tony Award forty-five years ago and remains one of the authoritative works on challenging a fictional medium’s confines. It was not just breaking down the fourth wall that made that play work so well: its knowing air and self-awareness made the work break new ground. The idea of having a character address an audience directly is not new, but it's used here as a deviated narrative conceit. By staging Anna’s story entirely within a theatre, Shakespeare’s point that “all the world’s a stage, and we are but players upon it” is laid bare. The theatre is used as signifiers and symbols to abstractly represent the physical, drawing attention to its own artifice (insert Bertolt Brecht reference here). The stage is where the main characters play out their actions, while high society fills the audience and boxes watching and judging, and the indifferent population traipses around backstage, supporting the upper echelons unnoticed. Stoppard’s use of theatre as society is microcosm, lending the film a higher concept that we have seen thus far from other film adaptations of the same source material. Detractors have, however, found the conceit to be tiresome and distracting, so either you’re along for the ride or you aren’t.
Beyond its utility as a narrative conceit, Stoppard’s screenplay draws heightened attention to the fact that high society’s actions are consequential only to its own self. Considering the double standards that drive Anna away and allows her brother Stiva’s flagrantly public infidelity, the moral relativism is thrown into stark relief. It is no accident that Levin’s struggle, while merely a subplot in the film, is set in naturalist settings outside of the theatre. The filmmakers use verisimilitude for his story to contrast the artifice of Anna’s opulent but empty existence.
This adaptation also captures smaller points that may have been lost upon the casual viewer or those only familiar with the previous adaptations starring Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Sophie Marceau. The dialogue is so often focused on the love triangle that the subtler social criticisms are lost, but not so here. An overarching theme almost left unnoticed is the historical attributes given to Moscow and St. Petersburg (or “Peterhof” as it was known then). Peterhof was the seat of high society, culture and government, while Moscow was then considered a backwater. This further stresses Anna’s infidelity as improper, as it seemed to take place in the then-equivalent of a lesser place.
As usual, all players fare well in Wright’s film. Although somewhat miscast as Anna, Keira Knightley attacks the role with finesse and enthusiasm. Ms. Knightley may be a shade too youthful to play the weathered Anna, but she excels when the despair unravels the once-poised Anna. As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson has every element correct, capturing the youthfulness that betrays the proper man, knowing in the very bottom of his soul that it has little consequence to him. Anna knows what she’s talking about when she says he knows nothing of the cross she bears for them both. To complete the triangle, Jude Law embodies the long-suffering Karenin, leveraging his brittle voice and measured cadence to capture the broken heart of Anna’s ineffectual husband. There is also ample support from Alicia Vikander as Kitty (she can also be seen in the wonderful A Royal Affair), Emily Watson, Matthew McFadyen, Kelly Macdonald and Domhnall Gleeson, as Levin.
Visually, this is one of the most striking pictures of the year. Its aesthetic extravagance suggests Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence by way of Synecdoche, New York. As with his previous collaborations with Knightley on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, all technical details are exquisitely rendered, from Sarah Greenwood’s production design, to Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous lens, to Jacqueline Durran’s sartorial excesses. The sound recording complements the score, which is almost continuously played and rendered beautifully by Oscar winner Dario Marianelli. As with Atonement, sound plays an important role in isolating and heightening for emphasis in seemingly benign but effective manners.
Treatment of a revered literary classic is not, as a matter of due course, without its faults. It is a daunting task to condense a 900-page text that sometimes moves at a glacial pace into a film that seems all too short. Another fault is that Karenin has been homogenized in this version, with his misogyny (or is that misanthropy, given how self-contained he is) removed almost entirely from the film. This oversight should not, however, be attributed to Mr. Law. It makes Anna’s betrayal somewhat baffling and driven not by a need for escape or loathing, but a moment of uncontrolled passion run amok. The film’s numerous players are not well-established as characters on their own, and are more often signified by little traits and virtues. Nevertheless, the film’s bravura acting, inventive but elegant script, and technical excellence more than make up for the film’s shortcomings.
Anna Karenina opened in the United Kingdom in September, following a high-profile opening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is now playing in select cities throughout Europe and North America.