Joe Wright's opulent take on the Tolstoy classic is a triumph of technical bravura over emotional articulation.
Tom Stoppard, playwright and adaptor-extraordinaire of many of literature’s great classics, has turned his pen to Anna Karenina for a new version of the romantic tragedy for director Joe Wright. His plays are usually about love, sex, the elusive possibility of transcendence, about journeys of self-discovery cut with sharp wit and often tragedy. A perfect match for Tolstoy’s 'Anna Karenina', then?
This tragedy – to realise that the object of your love may in fact be a sophisticated artifice, rather than its imagined perfection made manifest – is the crux of Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna. The story, in case you aren’t familiar, is a classic doomed romance: Anna Karenina (Kiera Knightely) is married to the highly respected Karenin (Jude Law) in St. Petersburg, though she feels she is too young for the privilege.
Love is absent, and the temptations of mad romance prove intoxicating on a visit to her brother in Moscow. She meets Vronsky (a poorly cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They bicker, they dance together in full view of society’s eagle eyes. Then they fall in love. Kitty (Alicia Vikander), another high-society young woman ripe to be suited with Vronsky, is furious. People start to talk. Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a friend of Anna’s comedic brother Oblonksy (Matthew MacFayden), is deeply in love with Kitty, and proposes to her at a party. She rebuffs him, and he flees to the countryside to lick his wounds.
Knightley's Anna is theatrical, verging on melodramatic, occasionally cruel and acutely aware of her own beauty. Stoppard condenses Tolstoy’s Anna into a character who finds out very quickly that she cannot cope with having her dreams come true. This Anna, far from the pure, idealised romantic heroine immortalised in popular culture and wracked by true love, is here a darker, more angular creature.
In one scene, Wright frames Knightley against a pure white pillow; her eyes gaunt and her hair sprawled outwards, Medusa-like. This Anna is aware of the havoc she’s causing, but she refuses to back down, instead letting her insecurities poison her from the inside. In the end, her illicit love affair leaves her empty, paranoid; a terrorist to her own dreams of true love and escape.
Wright has clearly chosen to show a society where there is no respite from the rules. Rarely does the film leave the theatre of Moscow high society, as Wright offers a literal rendering of the theatricality of Tsarist Russia and has chosen to tell this story within an ever-shifting stage set. The bustle of public space doesn’t occur outside, but in the rafters of the theatre hall.
Sets move and change fluidly around the characters as they travel from gilded palaces to blood-red opera houses. Therefore, Anna is physically confined to the stage of society, a cruel platform where her exploration of love and sex are played out while the anguish of those she hurts, abandons and offends is laid bare on the boards of the stage.
And yet, about half way through the film, despite the beauty and care put into the sets, the costumes and the choreography, you realise it doesn’t quite come off. What should be propelling the film – the intensity of the characters and their relationships – comes second to the way it looks. Momentarily, Wright achieves a brilliant fusion of story and aesthetic. But for the most part, despite being dazzled by the opulence on screen, the rumble of boredom begins to swell.
What penetrates the boredom? That nothing is private. Love is madness. Anna doesn’t fully believe in her own ideal. The political narrative of the book is obliquely hinted at, and the closeness of the theatre works well to bring the poles of society into satirical counterpoint. Levin’s brother – the radical Nikolai – critiques high society in one scene, and where the beginning of the film is a work of stiff, choreographed theatricality – all pomp, awkward dancing and mock surprise – Nikolai, in one sickly cough, undermines the seriousness of that world: "privilege is irrational", and Wright’s camera pans downward onto a brightly lit scene of kitsch opulence playing out below.
Also, you don’t really believe Anna and Vronsky. Aaron Johnson-Taylor has been styled like a member of a '90s boyband, a bit Take That circa 1994, so Knightley’s beauty and manner seem too mature and dark for his partnership. Their exchanges are short, loose and light, easily surpassed by those of Greta Garbo and Fredric March in the 1935 film adaptation by Clarence Brown.
Garbo brings a similar melodrama, yet something about her relationship with March depicts the storm of emotions with greater subtlety and poise. In this Working Title version, Stoppard’s writing has been wrung like a dishcloth of all its mystery and wit. Instead, a line so mundane as "don’t ask why about love" has become the film’s central motif. It's often mesmerising to stare at and sharp and innovative in its theatricality, but Wright seems to have forgotten that amid it all, we need to believe in love. And in the end, you don’t.
Another Joe Wright-Keira Knightley dress-fest…
Eyes feasting at the set, head snoring at the forgotten storyline.
Worth it for the glitz and Wright’s brave film-within-the-theatre idea.