Director: Joe Wright
Runtime: 130 minutes
Shakespeare's immortal line "All the world's a stage..." has never applied to a film so literally as it does to Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel. Filmed almost entirely inside of a dilapidated theater, the film's characters walk across stages, climb through rafters, and move seamlessly from place to place as sets transform around them in real-time. It is, as the marketing has billed it, a bold new vision of Tolstoy's work. Yet is there a price to pay for such heavy artifice? The film runs a little over 2 hours, and Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have obviously omitted or streamlined parts of the 1000 page novel. Yet do these changes, combined with the stylistic conceit, detract from the overall quality and impact? It's hard to say, as Wright's film is the rare sort of classic literary adaptation that is likely to inspire extreme division, between those swept up by the execution, and those turned off by what could be seen as a nuance-free adaptation.
For those not terribly familiar with the story, Anna is set in Imperial Russia in the 1870s, and charts the fall of the distinguished titular character (played by Keira Knightley) in high society after a passionate affair. Yet Anna's infidelity towards her husband (Jude Law) is not the story's first bit of romantic betrayal. We're first introduced to Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen), a husband and father who engages in a brief affair of his own. It is in Anna's journey to smooth over the relationship between Oblonsky and his wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) that she first meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), who inspires actual feelings of attraction in Anna, as opposed to her respectful but love-less marriage to Karenin.
And now is as good a time as ever to admit that, outside of a few chapters, I have not read Tolstoy's novel. As such, I can't tell you how Anna Karenina "should" be played on screen, and if the character offers room for different interpretations. What I can say is that Ms. Knightley, in her third collaboration with Wright, presents her as a woman forced too early into maturity. Anna can be coy, flirty, or petulant at a moment's notice. As best as she tries to maintain the steely composure of a dignified member of the upper class, the facade cracks often as she struggles to reconcile her choices with the effects they have on her social life. She is, whether by choice or not, beyond being a girl, yet still not quite comfortable as a woman (I promise that this isn't a reference to that Britney Spears song). Where she stacks up against other big screen incarnations of the character, I can't say. However, despite the odd bump or two, Knightley and Wright's interpretation of the character is a success on its own terms, even if she is rendered less complex that she likely was on page.
Yet even though Anna's troubled romance with Vronsky is the story's focus, it is the supporting cast who dominate the film. That is, when they're given enough to do, and have scenes that allow them to breathe. MacFadyen is particularly lively, with his portly joviality and walrus mustache accompanying his grandiose swaggering. It is thanks to MacFadyen (and Stoppard's script), that the film generates a surprising amount of laughs. Even though these lighter moments are mostly confined to the film's opening (which has fun sending up the performative nature of upper class rules and rituals), they lend Wright's film a liveliness and an energy that is then carefully slowed down as emotions deepen.
If MacFadyen is the comedic king of the supporting cast, it's Law who reigns on the dramatic end of the spectrum. Kept out of sight early on, the actor - severely de-glammed with a horrible hairdo - brings a sophisticated toughness to Karenin that refrains from making him a simple antagonist. Karenin is stern and abides by his moral code, yet he remains understandable, even though his attitude towards Anna can easily be seen as cruel.
But then there are those who move outside of the grand artifice of the theater. Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), a young man seeking Oblonsky's romantic assistance, rejects high society, and takes the story to a series of naturalistic settings. While the others fret about morals and manners, Levin makes his living out in the wheat fields, free from gossip and constricting social identities. As a result, Levin's relationship with young socialite Kitty (Alicia Vikander) feels, appropriately, more honest and heartfelt, whereas other relationships veer toward heightened melodrama.
This marks, perhaps, the one key drawback to the film's structure and Mr. Stoppard's screenplay. Wright's Anna Karenina has energy, but it can also feel truncated. As well as much of the film flows along, it occasionally lurches forward with emotional developments, particularly when it comes to Anna and Vronsky's affair. And even though Knightley generally holds up her end of the relationship nicely, Johnson's Vronsky comes with a surprisingly lack of allure. The strange blonde dye job is forgivable. The fact that Johnson and Knightley sometimes seem to pretend that they're interacting with someone other than their scene partner? Less so. As such, neither Anna's fall from grace, nor her ultimate fate register as strongly as they could. Though the film descends from its outrageous stylization as it progresses, it can't quite hop off of the pedestal to become fully human. Wright strives for an epic romantic tragedy, yet he doesn't make it all the way there. Consider it a case of landing among the stars after shooting for the moon.
Where the film does fully succeed, to little surprise, is in its visual and sonic departments. The sets, whether realistic or purposefully stagy, are intricate and often create the effect of looking at a series of beautiful moving tableaus. Jacqueline Durran's costumes, with a wide array of colors, head ornaments, veils, and fur-lined garments, constantly top themselves the further the film goes on. Throw in cinematographer Seamus McGarvey to capture it all, and you have a truly sumptuous experience that sweeps your senses off of their feet, even as it sometimes leaves the heart behind. Usual Wright composer Dario Marianelli is also back after skipping out on Hanna, and provides suitably seductive, lush musical accompaniments that transform the story from classic romantic literature to full blown opera. Whatever your thoughts on Wright as a director, there's no doubt the man knows how to create beautiful (and often compelling) images even as he flirts with indulgence. From an aesthetic standpoint, consider Anna Karenina a two hour ride in a Rolls Royce outfitted by Chanel and Swarovski.
How fans of the book will react to this adaptation is, as previously stated, difficult to say. Some may find Wright's streamlined take enthralling. Others may find it to be a garish watering down of one of Russian literatures greatest works. Yet wherever you stand on the film (even if you haven't read the book), it's hard to not be impressed by the daring approach. Many adaptations are sunk by a slavish faithfulness to the source material. At the very least, Wright and his cohorts deserve a degree of admiration for creating such a wholly cinematic vision of a novel that, in its entire complexity, was probably never truly meant for the big screen.