Wow, this is spooky. When I was in college, I wrote a paper on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It was about the novel’s relationship to the stage — if my memory serves me, I wrote about how the book’s scenes at the theater and the opera reflected Tolstoy’s depiction of tsarist St. Petersburg society as a place where everyone was on display at all times. Now Joe Wright has come out with an overtly theatrical movie version of Anna Karenina that plays as if he had brought my college paper to life. This actually isn’t a good thing. After all, you wouldn’t want the undergraduate version of me turning Tolstoy’s masterpiece into a movie. Wright gets better results than Undergraduate Me would have, but his film is still just as shallow and gimmicky as I would undoubtedly have made it back then.
Keira Knightley portrays the doomed title heroine, a 19th-century Russian countess married to a rigid, moralistic, older bureaucrat (Jude Law). In the face of a hypocritical, judgmental, patriarchal society, she throws her social position and her beloved children to the winds to have an affair with the young and passionate Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the former star of Kick-Ass and Savages who has now added his wife’s last name to his own).
The most eye-catching thing here is the artificial and highly stylized treatment that director Wright (Hanna, Atonement) brings to this story. Much of the film plays out on an actual theatrical stage. Lighting equipment and machinery are frequently visible in the background of shots, actors perform in front of painted backdrops or walls that are folded up and carried off after the scene ends, and even an ice-skating scene on a huge frozen pond is framed by theater boxes. When Anna’s brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) walks through his office, his clerks stamp and file their paperwork in perfect unison as if they’re in a musical. You wish they really would burst into song, and indeed, they all whistle the same tune when they get up to leave. The point of all this stylization is to make this period costume drama look different from all the other period costume dramas, and Anna Karenina does succeed at that much. Yet the stage devices neither amplify the emotions in the story to operatic dimensions (despite composer Dario Marianelli’s efforts), nor do they create the sense of an oppressive society where everyone scrutinizes and judges everyone else’s actions, as Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence did.
Unlike other English-language versions of Anna Karenina, this one makes an effort to include the half of the novel that concerns Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), Stiva’s landowning best friend and later brother-in-law who lives in harmony with the land and the peasants. The movie underlines Levin’s genuineness by filming his scenes in the countryside realistically. That’s wrong, though. Tolstoy depicts those flawed, fallen aristocrats with an unsparing gimlet eye, but he’s compassionate toward them as well. Wright’s movie inadvertently draws a hard, bright line between the virtuous Levin and the corrupt nobles, which makes for a much less interesting drama.
The movie is full of neat little visual touches, like representing the heroine’s first railway trip to Moscow with an extravagantly decorated toy train moving through a modeled landscape. The script by Tom Stoppard does a remarkable job of condensing the voluminous novel into a progression of taut scenes. Yet for all the movie’s cleverness (and for all the undistinguished huffing and puffing by the actors here), its approach doesn’t accomplish much that a more conventional treatment wouldn’t have. This past spring, Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea took up many of the same themes in this movie (including suicide by train) and treated them in richer, deeper terms. Compared with that film, this work is glittery and cardboard-thin.
I can’t remember what grade my professor gave my paper on Tolstoy’s novel. He was probably impressed by the innovative angle that I took but unconvinced by the results. Now here we are years later, and that’s exactly how I feel about this Anna Karenina.
Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Tom Stoppard, based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel. Rated R.