There probably isn’t a more difficult text that has been attempted at film adaptation more than Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The material, so dense and involved, spirals over 860 pages and delves into issues beyond the main story’s love triangle, including (but not limited to) Tolstoy’s insistence on political overtones throughout the book’s final installments. That being said, it is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of all time (if not THE best) and so the film adaptations have continued to roll out, in Hollywood and beyond, since the creation of narrative filmmaking. The latest may be the most esoteric and challenging, stunning and beautiful; at times wondrously mesmerizing and at others, interminable and pondering.
Directed by Joe Wright (the man behind, what I think is, one of the greatest literary adaptations, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice), this latest version of Anna Karenina is staged – literally – in front of us, while swooping sets and props and actors wheel themselves in and out like a play. Not to say that it is one static shot on a stage. Contrary, Wright whirls the camera in and out of locales within this large stage with expert precision, to the point that the film’s unorthodox storytelling technique becomes a bit of a norm, for me at least. Part of this movie’s charm is seeing just how certain moments will end up being presented in this format. Part of this movie’s problem is that Wright doesn’t fully commit to it; nearly abandoning it two-thirds of the way through. Take notes from Lars von Trier, who made two film’s in chalklines (Dogville and Manderlay) – if you’re going to make radical visual distinctions, stick to it.
I bring this up first and foremost because Wright’s device here eventually becomes a distraction to the story, and when the stage technique disappears, even for a moment, we’re a left with the film’s story which feels dry and hackneyed by comparison. All of Karenina‘s spice lies in the moments where it seems Wright put the most effort in, and he should have spread that effort over the entire film as opposed to just sprinkling it heavy in the beginning. This movie’s best moments really dazzle spectacularly, but the cumbersome moments feel twice so. And this is not to fault the film’s performances. Knightley, as Anna, continues to be the best young period actress working today, while Jude Law as her low-maintenance but demanding husband and Matthew Macfayden as her philandering brother Oblonsky both give tremendous performances. But they don’t stick.
By now, everyone knows the story. Anna, an affluent woman and wife of Russian nobleman Karenin, meets the wild bachelor, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and they fall in love instantly. Anna desires the passion that comes with an affair with Vronsky, but fears the social persecution she will surely receive for leaving her dependable husband for another man. Her love overcomes the pressure, and she begins her relationship with Vronsky, much to chagrin of Karenin – who would more likely approve of them keeping their relationship private, then the scandal of a divorce. But Anna and Vronsky are unable to keep their love quiet, and it turns the entire social structure of Russia against her – leaving her without friends and without the privilege of seeing her son.
There is also the story of Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his love for the young enchantress Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Connected loosely by Levin’s friendship with Oblonsky, and Kitty’s relation to Oblonsky’s wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), a lot of time is committed to this plot line (nearly half). And while this is a much nicer love story (Kitty and Lenin’s fate is far less doomed than that of Anna and Vronsky), one is left to wonder how much more the film would have roamed had it not been so dedicated to it. The truth is, as plodding as this film feels at times, it should have been longer. By the story’s later developments, Anna comes off as an insatiable irritant, not the sympathetic martyr that she’s meant to be. Her story is meant to be a tragedy, but its hard to get that tragic feeling when you don’t care a whole lot about the character.
This is the third film that Joe Wright has made with Keira Knightley (this, Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement), and by all accounts those are his three best films, which speaks more to the lesser quality of his other films than the high quality of these. There seems to be a natural fusion between these two performers, and even when the result is somewhat of a mess (as this film is), it’s still interesting to watch. I’d rather watch this mashed up Anna Karenina than his bloated, overly-sincere 2009 film, The Soloist. Their talents blended perfectly in Pride and Prejudice, which is a near perfect movie, and I don’t doubt that they’d be able to reach those heights together again. It just didn’t happen this time around. If Knightley is ever able to win an Academy Award at any point in her career, I’m almost positive that Wright will be the director to help her do it.
If fans of Tolstoy’s novel asked me to recommend this film to them, I’d probably say yes. Not because I particularly liked it, cause it’s obvious by everything written above that I, as a whole, did not. But because it’s herky-jerky style is bound to polarize, and while I found it distracting others may find it intoxicating. In the end, I’m not totally sure what Joe Wright was going for, but he was still able to direct his cast toward some very good performances (particularly Law and Macfayden) and create a version of this story that is distinct from the countless others. Cinema is a better place when experimental narratives like this are able to get made and seen widely. I’m just glad that I won’t have to see it again.
Directed by Joe Wright