As with any new cinematic adaptation of a frequently-filmed Great Novel, the biggest challenge facing the makers of Anna Karenina -- the umpteenth film to be derived from Leo Tolstoy's enduring 19th century romance -- is convincing moviegoers that they really need to see the same story told again. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard's method of persuasion is to inject a surfeit of audacious theatricality into a novel that modern audiences might consider stodgy and old-fashioned (wrongly, of course, but that's a separate issue). In their conceit, the woeful tale of the titular Russian socialite (played by Keira Knightley, in her third collaboration with Wright) plays out within the confines of a period-appropriate theater, which constantly morphs and changes to become its own world. The motivating idea seems to be that since Anna's tragic story unfolds on a very public stage, the other characters function as both players in -- and spectators to -- her downfall. It's an intriguing approach that's executed with impressive showmanship, but it also inadvertently misses what's at the core of the book: passion.
Tolstoy's sprawling novel is packed with plots, subplots and digressions, but the driving force of the narrative in the various movie versions has generally been the love triangle between the high-strung Anna, her older, stolid husband Karenin (Jude Law) and the dashing military man Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who tempts her to stray from her marriage in a society that prizes, but frequently doesn't practice, fidelity. Once word of her affair gets out, followed by her subsequent pregnancy and decision to abandon her marriage for her lover, Anna becomes persona non grata amongst the men and women of her social class. Her total ostracism inevitably takes its toll on her mental health, as well as her once powerful love with Vronsky, setting the stage for one of literature's most famous suicides. (C'mon, people... the book is over 100 years old -- the spoiler statute has long since lapsed.) Running parallel to Anna's story in the novel is the misadventure of the heart experience by the young landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is originally rejected by his lady love, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) -- Anna's niece and Vronsky's original object of affection -- only to eventually win her back.
Levin's storyline (which has a considerably happier ending than Anna's) has, by necessity, been trimmed down in Stoppard's adaptation, although thankfully not eliminated entirely. Still, this is first and foremost Anna's show and she literally occupies center stage for the bulk of the movie, as the backdrops, props and fellow players shift and swirl around her. The skill with which Wright executes these scene changes is commendable, managing to be both theatrical and cinematic at the same time. Even though he's, in essence, filming a play, his camera doesn't stay still, instead moving continuously through the space, from the orchestra pit to the stage and even up to the rafters. That sense of constant motion is further aided by Stoppard's swiftly-paced screenplay, which reduces Tolstoy's narrative to its barest essence without feeling like a bare-bones Wikipedia plot synopsis. The film may not have the sweep or the philosophical underpinnings of the book, but it does communicate the full weight of Anna's tragedy.
Or does it? Certainly, Wright and Stoppard do their best to convince us that what we're seeing is tragic and the final act is dominated by gloomy cinematography and a dirge-like score. But what's missing there, as it is throughout, is a sense of who these characters are as people, not just as another set of props meant to serve as part of Wright's prodigious stagecraft. Coming off her riskier, more daring (and, it must be said, divisive) performance in last year's A Dangerous Method, this role feels like a step backward for Knightley; it's a safe, straightforward portrayal of a tragic heroine, filled with lots of emoting, but a dearth of actual emotion. At least she looks the part of a member of the Russian elite; that's more than can be said for Taylor-Johnson, who is sorely miscast as Vronsky. His intense attraction to Anna is what sets the plot in motion, but there's simply no spark between the two performers, which renders their romance doomed before it even begins. A decade ago, Law would probably have made a fine Vronsky, but he's actually well-suited to the role of the cuckolded husband; of the three leads, his is the one performance that regularly goes beyond pouting and posing. It's interesting to contrast Anna Karenina with another recent adaptation of a popular 19th century novel, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights. That movie hit upon a visual and performance style that's cinematically striking and taps into the emotional power of its source material in a very primal, elemental way. Anna Karenina is beautiful to look at, but mostly unengaging -- a film that's more enamored with its own technique that it is with Tolstoy's story.
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