by Dan Fields
First published November 23, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Double Icing On Half A Cake
Joe Wright established himself practically overnight as a strong force in period drama based on popular books. He wowed with the relentlessly dour Atonement and then soared with a superb riff on Pride and Prejudice. Couple these efforts with the spunky, bizarro thriller Hanna and you should have no trouble seeing that Wright is a filmmaker both exuberant and offbeat.
His Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s monumentally acclaimed novel, is a parade of elegant design and intricate staging. It is not difficult to guess which Academy Award nominations its makers have in mind. By enclosing the cultural volatility of 19th-century cosmopolitan Russia in an ever-shifting magic lantern, those responsible get to show off and share some cutting insights on the artifice and deception required to sustain imperial high society.
Wright sets the epic tragedy of Anna, a fallen woman if ever there was one, almost entirely within a spacious theatre hall, with the main action unfolding on an impossibly marvelous series of collapsing and interlocking sets. The wings and backstage area become private places of intrigue and the catwalks above serve as sordid back alleys. There are trains and horse races and all the bustle of Moscow and St. Petersburg contained behind a single curtain. The complexity and perpetual motion of this living stage is nothing short of stunning.
The hard truth, impossible to dodge, is that this is not Tolstoy’s world. It is more like Hugo Cabret’s world, and from time to time it even flirts perilously with becoming Baz Luhrmann’s world. Tom Stoppard’s script, though consistently bright and entertaining, abridges the story painfully to fit the stylish construct. Anna Karenina may be the title character, but she need not be the sole focus of the plot. The supporting figures in her life lend important dramatic context to her abasement.
Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is a shining star of the Russian nobility. Beautiful, kind, and admired by all, she is the wife of austere statesman Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and doting mother to a young son. Her first action in the story is to visit her philandering brother “Stiva” Oblonsky (Matthew Mcfadyen) in hopes of smoothing the latest domestic crisis with his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). In the course of this trip, Anna meets the roguish Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and an indiscrete liaison blooms between them. Vronsky is young, dashing, and passionate, three things Anna could never expect from her marriage, and despite some initial scruples she allows him to sweep her away to unwed bliss and public disgrace.
This dashes the hopes of Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), previously Vronsky’s best girl, and cues the dual societies of Moscow and St. Petersburg to begin spreading word of the affair. Karenin, wishing to avoid a career-ending scandal for himself, quietly threatens to cut off Anna’s contact with her beloved child, and all respectable company begins shutting her out, despite attempts by her icy confidante Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson) to keep her on everyone’s dance cards. Anna gains two major enemies in Vronsky’s fearsome mother (Olivia Williams) and Karenin’s loyal friend the Countess Lydia (Emily Watson). She soon realizes that her decision to live for love has cast her into permanent ruin while barely scorching her lover’s reputation. Things cannot and will not end well for her, come what may.
Meanwhile, Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), an industrious landowner and farmer, is free to pursue the attentions of the heartbroken Kitty, offering her a moral haven on his farm, away from the machinations of the city. His embodiment of the salt of the earth poses a stark contrast to the duplicity and self-interest motivating Anna, Vronsky and their friends. Unfortunately, Joe Wright fails to give this essential element of the plot its fair share.
As a literary adaptation, Anna Karenina is impossible to condone fully. Wright and Stoppard have taken a definitive work of realist fiction and hammered it into an abstract, hyper-stylized masquerade. They have eloquently stated reasons for doing so, but the basic contradiction is inescapable. Though true to many key emotional beats in the tragedy of the eponymous Anna, this film in large part misses the point of its source narrative.
Most egregiously condensed is the relationship between Levin and Kitty, representing the most righteous aspects of the rural gentry. Those who live without guile or pretension get to escape the mad theatre and live in real life, you see. Levin’s distance from St. Petersburg, both physical and philosophical, establishes a crucial moral counterpoint to the scandal swallowing Anna and her loved ones alive. The touching humanity of the family he builds, in the face of unrest and imminent political storms, is the other half of this story, and has been all but deleted from Wright’s interpretation.
Anna Karenina is a tale of staggering size, and does not bear any degree of cutting down. Given the recent trend among blockbuster franchises, it seems a shame that Wright did not elect to split the movie into two parts. Given four or five hours, all the elaborate staging could work its magic without overshadowing the story or robbing it of weight. The fatal sin of this Anna Karenina is incompleteness. The quick pace and whimsical choreography work well in the story’s comical episodes (Oblonsky’s characterization and overall tone are spot-on), but in serious moments the gravity hardly has any time to sink in. The overriding levity of the film makes its emotional low points seem inappropriately droll.
Despite the constraints and distractions of the visual style, the cast and performances are first-rate. This is a piece knocking on the back door of greatness, and it manages to articulate an acceptable synopsis of Tolstoy’s novel for those who have not read the book beforehand. This is not as good a film as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for example, but it is a damned sight easier to follow.
Its shortcomings would matter less if Anna Karenina were based on a less iconic literary work. It tells its story clearly enough, but often outweighs that story with its insistently fanciful elements. This movie is well worth seeing for the spectacle alone, but on later reflection the plot seems airy and elusive. As an overindulgent style exercise, it lacks the focus to become what the cast and crew surely had the talent to make it: a true classic.