Joe Wright's dust-blowing new adaptation of Anna Karenina faces a towering mountain of precedent: not only the greatest novel by the man Nabokov called "the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction," but the whole checkered history of Leo Tolstoy at the movies.
A visit to Tolstoy's imdb.com page gives the count a "writer" credit on 162 titles, including the first of a score of Anna adaptations in 1911, the year after the author's death. (The Kreutzer Sonata is particularly popular, probably because it contains a juicy murder.) The only work of the lot I've seen that achieves greatness — Robert Bresson's 1983 L'Argent — comes from a lesser story, "The Forged Coupon," and evinces the rare case of a filmmaker whose vision is powerful enough to overwhelm Tolstoy's. Because masterpieces of literature do not automatically make masterpieces of the screen, form-obsessed cinephiles rarely find common ground with fans of the British costume drama. (And, Slavic source aside, this Anna Karenina essentially is a British costume drama.)
Tolstoy's family epic has been smartly contoured to fit just more than two hours of screen time by Sir Tom Stoppard. Although principally a man of the theater, Stoppard is responsible for "literate" movies like Shakespeare in Love, as well as the screenplay to R.W. Fassbinder's clumsy adaptation of Nabokov's Despair, a film that proves the difficulty of moving great art from page to screen. As Nabokov says, "A tinge of poshlost" — the Russian phrase translates roughly as "kitsch" — "is often given by the cinema to the novel it distorts and coarsens in its crooked glass."
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Unlike, say, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Stoppard has retained the structure of Tolstoy's novel, which parallels two contrasting courtships — though the film, of course, favors the one with more sensational action and stars the title character. A wife and young mother, Anna — perhaps most famously played by Garbo, here by Keira Knightley — falls madly for a Russian officer, Vronsky (powder-puffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson, resembling the offspring of a nutcracker and Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince.) The first of this match's tragic consequences is Vronsky's jilting of Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander) who, in the B story, is courted by the surly, shy, and awkward Levin (Domhnall Green). Levin is the bosom friend of Anna's philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) — prey to the same governing passions as his sister and to none of the same social and legal reproach.
It is not Stoppard, but director Wright (Knightley's collaborator on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) who is responsible for the most immediately striking aspect of this Anna, the self-conscious "theatricality" of its staging. Dutiful to the text, the film begins in Oblonsky's study — but this study is located in the proscenium arch of an empty theater, while an invisible orchestra is heard to tune. Wright misses few opportunities to emphasize the artifice: Painted backdrops lower into place; a toy train becomes the fateful, fatal express to St. Petersburg; the daily routine in Oblonsky's office is a choreographed dance; the disgraced Anna is shunned by society at the Petersburg theater and she's hit with a spotlight.
Away from those stage spaces where society goes to see and be seen, the scenery is a dingy backstage or the catwalks between the fly galleries, populated by the gray and downtrodden — Onstage, Backstage instead of Upstairs, Downstairs. Wright's gambit should be refreshing, but, in action, it often feels like a pricier, self-amused version of a shopworn "experiment" made for East German television in the '80s. It's all in the service of such a commonplace argument that it cannot be received as a simple pleasure. The movie's big idea: that life among the aristocratic class of the 19th century was entirely a matter of histrionics, of stagecraft if you will. This understanding is, however, intrinsic to our collective presupposition of the period by now — to say anything else might be truly revolutionary— while the attempted contrast between Anna and Levin's worlds is muddled by the exceedingly picturesque and painterly out-of-doors photography.
Thankfully, the men and women populating Wright's little theater are something more than cutouts. Once deprived of the atmosphere of society to which she's acclimated, pre-Raphaelite-glamorous Knightley's emotions come through with a gasping immediacy, and the handling of Anna and Vronsky's inexorable slide into mutual resentment strikes the right note of walls-closing-in claustrophobia. Jude Law deserves special notice as Anna's cuckolded husband, Karenin; his stillness is commanding, curtly conveying both Karenin's fineness as a man and impossibility as a mate. Just as the characters created by Tolstoy the artist got the advantage of Tolstoy the polemicist — at least until the end of his life — so these confoundingly good performances gradually win the movie from Wright's puerile conceit, giving us an Anna Karenina if not for the ages, than at least for an evening.