Anna Karenina

Divorce is one thing – dinner is quite another

KeiraKnightleyAnnaKarenina2

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is what I would call different.  It’s different enough to provide a fresh, exhilarating film experience, but it only works one-hundred percent if you’re not much of a reader.

The story, set in 19th century tsarist Russia, follows Anna (Keira Knightley in yet another period piece) as she explores the question of her own happiness, a question whose answer seems to ever evade her grasp.  Her husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), is practical, steadfastly religious, soft-spoken, and highly respected in society.  They have a son together and seem to get on just fine, until Anna lays eyes on Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an affair with him during a trip to Moscow.  Karenin is relatively unmoved, as such concepts as “love” and “happiness” don’t hold much stock in his world, but he soon discovers that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, which is not only (according to Karenin) a “crime against God,” but also a threat to the family’s social and political standing.  The irony here is that the story begins with her coming to terms with her brother’s (Matthew Macfayden) womanizing, which threatens to break up the family.  Her own adultery is met with far less tolerance, and even when Vronsky brings her to St. Petersburg, the couple are unable to make friends, and as Vronsky develops his own social life, Anna becomes paranoid and possessive.

The parallel story involves Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a country landowner who loves Kitty (Alicia Vikander), sister to Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).  In the original story, his part is much larger, and his marriage to Kitty is anything but easy, whereas the film focuses more on Levin’s difficulty in courting Kitty – sure, this is important, but a novel of this size can’t be compressed, with all of its ins, outs, what-have-yous, character developments, emotions, and structures, into two hours. Additionally, some of the most important parts of the book involve epiphanies on the part of several characters, most of all Levin, who eventually decides, after doubting Kitty’s love for him and fearing a difficult relationship with his son, that he must live righteously in order to justify living at all.  Vronsky, amazed and embarrassed at Karenin’s strength of mind and heart when the latter forgives him for stealing his wife, unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  These pivotal scenes are omitted from the film.

In fact, the film does a bang-up job of sweeping any and all deep characterization under the proverbial rug.  Anna is depressive and indecisive, Karenin is righteous, Levin tries hard, Vronksy is foppish and irritable, Oblonksy is a funnyman, Dolly is understanding.  We never get much deeper than these traits, and the narrative focuses more on Anna’s manic dithering than any real growth on the part of the cast.

Where the film succeeds is its visual style: much of the story, particularly in the beginning, takes place on an enormous stage.  Single shots encompass multiple scenes, with the actors walking behind curtains and changing costumes in seconds.  Sometimes, they’re dressed by stage-hands right in front of us.  Many of the film’s discoveries take place in the theatre’s rafters, where the characters creep, ponder, and of course, in the end, leap.  This style is at the expense of never being unaware that you’re watching a scripted production, but for this piece, it inexplicably works.  The performances are mostly golden, with Jude Law radiating a reserved intelligence, Gleeson possibly finding a breakthrough as a hero, Macfayden managing to provide comedy within a tragedy, and Kelly Macdonald looking as though she’s about to cry in nearly every scene.  The only one I’m on the fence about is Keira Knightley.  Can she act?  Of course.  Was she cast in this film because she’s the best possible candidate to play Anna, or because her popularity following the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was the only ticket to getting a nationwide release?  I don’t know.  I would have been way more “with” Anna in the film version if Kelly Macdonald had taken up that role instead of Dolly, who is relegated mostly to the background.

I’m more concerned with the decision to leave out character details and depth, rendering many of the characters straw figures in fabulous clothing.  I cannot help but think this was a studio thing, or a knowing flourish on the part of the director – as classic and canonized as Tolstoy’s work may be (hell, I just had a student present on the author and this novel last week), as much as everyone should be looking at this material as an example of good art, there’s a dwindling interest (and we’re talking about the general public here, not writers and readers and thinkers) in anything that doesn’t involve fast cars, laconic dialogue, mushroom clouds, and traded gunfire.  Why does the work of Tolkien, work that’s been adapted to death, get a three-movie deal for a 317-page novel?  Anna Karenina, 864 pages, gets crammed into 2 hours of reel, and someone’s going to complain that it feels incomplete?  I’m sure Stoppard, who wrote and adapted his own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to film, had every intention of doing a faithful adaptation here.  But when it came down to it, there had to be a sacrifice.  Throwing character development in front of the train is an insane decision, but as we all know, there ain’t no sanity clause.

Anna Karenina (2012); written by Tom Stoppard; adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Joe Wright; starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  

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