As multifaceted as its creator, Anna Karenina is a great holy mess of a book. It's a brilliant psychological novel; it's a sweeping social exploration; it's a philosophic treatise on moral relativism and the limits of reason. But it's also rambling and repetitive and raw, although that structural weakness doubles as an overarching strength – the book, like Leo Tolstoy himself, pulses with an untameable energy.
In this adaptation, director Joe Wright, plus screenwriter Tom Stoppard, are determined to tame the untameable. And they do. The pair put the novel into the vise grip of a theatrical paradigm, then they squeeze hard. The compressed result is intelligent, artful, clarifying and very thin – the picture's structural strength doubles as an underlying weakness. In other words, the movie enjoys what the novel lacks and lacks what the novel enjoys.
The opening sequence is, quite literally, staged. Imperial Russia, circa 1874, exists as (and in) a decaying theatre, with the camera gliding through the proscenium arch and into the wings and up to the flies, until the silence is broken by this curt aside: "Sin has a price. You may be sure of that." Immediately, then, we are sure of two things. First, the social sweep of the novel has been reduced to a single presiding metaphor: Old Russia is a stage show, a claustrophobic and closed society of prescribed, rigid roles. Second, as evident in that sinful aside, the psychology and the philosophy are similarly whisked away. Befitting a theatrical interpretation, what's left is pure melodrama – in this case, the melodrama of love in all its destructive, expansive, narcissistic, selfless guises.
Of course, amidst this amorous tangle, a classic triangle soon arises linking the adulterous Anna (Keira Knightley), her husband Karenin (Jude Law) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the natty object of her unbridled passion. The developing geometry gets dramatized in a series of beautifully choreographed sequences. Staying within the stage conceit, Wright captures Karenin at work, the cold-fish bureaucrat with his subordinates dancing attention. Then in the formal dance at an elaborate ball, the sparks first ignite between the black-gowned Anna and her circling white knight, their waltz escalating from a courtly ritual into a breathless frenzy. Appropriately, the affair's consummation breaks through the stage wall to the outside world, outside the societal rules in a lush field where the grass sways in a hot wind and the lovers embrace for a torrid French kiss. Also appropriate – well-born Russians of the time were all ardent Francophiles.
Visually, this is fascinating, a fresh and counterintuitive take on the old problem of adapting a classic book – don't open it up so much as close it down. Consequently, the plot's love triangle has a neat counterpart in the picture's stylistic triangle – a blend of the theatrical, the cinematic and (in several freeze frames) the painterly that weaves through the entire piece. A toy train becomes a real train that becomes a prop train. The fluttering of a lady's fan becomes the thundering of horse's hooves, whereupon actual steeds circle within a fake paddock. Yes, like that waltz and that train, love can be staged or it can be raw, a ritualized business or a runaway emotion.
Unusual too is the sympathy allotted to the principal trio. Played by Law wih a balding pate and muted hauteur, Karenin receives more than the customary share. When he laments, "Tell me what I did to deserve this?" the question seems rhetorical and the answer clear: "Nothing, you poor cuckold, nothing." Conversely, Anna appears shallow, slight, egocentric and hypocritically eager to snub society's dictates without sacrificing its benefits, characteristics that rob her of a tragic dimension but, more happily, that fall easily within Knightley's acting range. As for Vronsky, young and blond and curly-haired, he's just a pretty-boy victim here – first of his own desires and then of Anna's.
No doubt, there's clarity in the melodrama, yet at the expense of complexity. And, like the stage metaphor itself, the clarity begins to grow a bit precious, even before that train steams in for the bloody climax. Only once does the script choose to broaden instead of narrow. Compared to other adaptations, it gives more attention to Tolstoy's alter-ego Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his ultimately perfect marriage with Mother Russia (Alicia Vikander). Alas, his larger role is largely a mistake. Even in the novel, Levin is a problematic figure, but there he at least has to struggle to earn his idealized status. Here, he's just idealized and thus a clumsy symbol, perpetually surrounded by nature but so damned artificial.
Wright has always been a director with a passion for the grand idea – remember that surreal tracking shot across the Dunkirk beach in Atonement, war as a continuing carnival of horror? His passion is admirable but, like so many in the melodrama of love, it brings rewards and inflicts punishments alike. There's plenty of both in this Anna Karenina and, in that sense, the film stands in a unique position to the novel – an intriguing adaptation, yes, but an even better object lesson.
SIX MEMORABLE TOLSTOY ADAPTATIONS
The author of the towering 19th-century novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina lived long enough to see the early years of cinema with apparent approval. You can watch an elderly, white-bearded Leo Tolstoy on YouTube, handing alms to the poor like a Russian Santa Claus, There's also footage of him on his deathbed at the Astapovo railway station in 1910, a scene dramatized in the 2009 film The Last Station, starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren.
According to one purported interview (not published until 1937 in The New York Times), Tolstoy saw great possibilities in film and even had a project in mind for the screen. "The cinema," he is quoted as saying, "has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness."
That greatness hasn't often found its way into adaptations of Tolstoy's work, though it's not for lack of trying. Of the scores of Tolstoy film and television adaptations over the past century, here are a half-dozen of the most famous attempts to divine the mystery of Tolstoy's art.
Anna Karenina (1935)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Running a brisk 96-minutes, this sumptuous MGM film starred Greta Garbo as Anna, with Basil Rathbone as her husband, and Frederic March as Vronsky. Though it chopped out a lot of Tolstoy, the film has remained well-regarded as a vehicle for its luminous star.
Anna Karenina (1948)
Directed by Julien Duvivier
This British-made, Alexander Korda-produced version starred Vivien Leigh (post-Scarlett O'Hara, pre-Blanche DuBois) with Ralph Richardson as Karenin and newcomer Kieron Moore as Vronsky, with a screenplay partly written by French dramatist Jean Anouilh. The film flopped, though the gorgeous sets by Russian art director André Andrejew and costumes by Cecil Beaton are still admired.
War and Peace (1956)
Directed by King Vidor
The first English-language version of Tolstoy's massive novel was an American-Italian production that focused on three characters: Pierre (Henry Fonda), Natasha (Audrey Hepburn) and Prince Andrei (Mel Ferrer). Though it ran three hours and 26 minutes and the battle scenes were impressive, the film was dismissed as sketchy and miscast. The New York Times's Bosley Crowther noted its "oddly mechanical and emotionally sterile air."
War and Peace (1967)
Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk
With the Cold War still on deep chill and the United States taking the lead in the space race, the Soviet Union served up a cinematic counterstrike: This six-hour-plus epic, five years in the making, reputedly featured a cast of 120,000, including soldiers drawn from the Red Army for the battle and ballroom scenes. Some dramatic stiffness aside, this is one of those movies you have to see to believe, preferably on a big screen, with a bowl of borscht at intermission.
Directed by Robert Bresson
The French master's last work, and one Tolstoy adaptation that can lay claim to cinematic greatness, was based on the first part of the author's posthumously published novella, The Forged Coupon, which follows a devastating chain of consequences after a student passes a counterfeit cheque.
Two Jacks (2012)
Directed by Bernard Rose
British director Rose is cinema's most devoted Tolstoyan, with Anna Karenina (1997), Ivansxtc (2000), The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Boxing Day (2012). Two Jacks (which played at Montreal and Vancouver film festivals this past fall but is not yet released in theatres) is based on Tolstoy's short novel Two Hussars, about two generations of cavalry men. In Rose's version, Danny Huston stars as a carousing Hollywood director and his real-life nephew, Jack Huston (the half-masked sniper from Boardwalk Empire), plays his son. The cast includes Sienna Miller and Jacqueline Bisset as the same woman, 20 years later.
– Liam Lacey