“Anna Karenina” is that rare film adaptation that stands on its own as a vital work of art, and not merely a retelling of a canonical tale. A bold, inventive reimagining of the Tolstoy novel, director Joe Wright’s new film still manages to stay remarkably true to the emotional and lyrical core of its classic source.
Keira Knightley, the costume drama it-girl of the moment, plays the doomed title character. She brings a pleasing darkness and sensuality to the role. Trapped in a loveless marriage with the icy, imperious Karenin (Jude Law), Anna succumbs, after initial resistance, to the ardent pursuit of a dashing young officer Vronsky (Aaron-Taylor Johnson). The tempestuous beginnings of their love affair course like a fast-burning fuse racing inexorably to an explosion.
Anna’s transgressions are intertwined with the renegade aspirations of landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who eschews high society and is suspicious of Russia’s rigid class system. He provides aid and comfort to his older brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), who has renounced his patrimony and lives as a tubercular alcoholic in a hovel with a former prostitute. Levin is in love with the young Kitty Oblonsky (Alicia Vikander), but his affections are initially spurned because Kitty favors the handsome and popular Vronsky.
Director Wright’s staging of the film is impressionistic, gauzy, and lacks the connective tissue of its source text – the omissions and elisions needed to compress the sprawling social novel into a two-hour running time are too numerous to mention. Part of the audacity of Tom Stoppard’s script is that it makes these choices confidently and without resorting to exposition.
The story is told through the frame of a grand stage, with the scene shifting from grand ballrooms to squalid apartments to train compartments to rural farmhouses. The apparatus of the theater – the footlights, catwalks and floorboards – is intermittently shown as scenes take on a life of their own. But the staging isn’t just background. It provides a window into the consciousness of the characters – we know that they know that they are on stage. Every action of theirs is on view, being judged against the rigid rules of Russian society.
Tolstoy’s novel goes to great lengths to precisely position the characters within that highly stratified society. Mr. Stoppard does not have the time or inclination to give vent to the interior thoughts of the characters, or offer disquisitions on rank and custom among the aristocracy. Yet the sociological nuance is all there in the film for viewers who seek it out. It comes across in their clothes, particularly Anna’s ball gowns and Vronksy’s absurdly white regimental finery. It’s there in the scenes of Levin trying to bury his sorrow by living out his rustic utopian fantasy of mowing hay alongside the peasants who live on his estate. It’s there in the scripted ballroom dances, where secret desires play out for all to see.
There’s a bit of camp in this costume drama – perhaps inevitable with the staginess of the presentation. The many close-ups of glycerin tears poised to spill over heavy-rimmed eyelids feel a bit over the top. To my mind, this is of a piece with the voluptuous excess of the story. Mr. Wright and Mr. Stoppard know they are telling a tale of sin and its consequences, and they do their best to let the audience know that the characters are misbehaving with eyes wide open to the likely outcome.
TITLE: “Anna Karenina”
RATING: Rated R for flashes of nudity, very brief gore, and sexual themes
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
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