How do you condense a near 1,000 page book into a palatable two hour movie? Well it helps if you have Joe Wright at the helm, Sir Tom Stoppard to adapt the screenplay and stars like Keira Knightley and Domhnall Gleeson on top form.
Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” in a paragraph with no spoilers, I think – It commences with Anna (Keira Knightley) going to the aid of her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) to try and convince her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) not to throw him out. On this journey she first meets Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and eventually succumbs to a torrid love affair in spite of her marriage to Aleksei (Jude Law). Running concurrently to this story is one concerning Oblonsky’s old friend Levin (Donhnall Gleeson) and his love for Kitty (Alicia Vikander) Dolly’s younger sister. Got all that? Good, now on with the review.
According to the fountain of all knowledge, wikipedia, there have already been 11 previous films about the Tolstoy masterpiece. Wright made it clear he didn’t want to make another pedestrian period drama. The film is therefore in the format of a play. We start with the camera in an old Russian theatre moving towards the curtain as we are informed of the time and place. Then the curtain rises on a bare boned stage with Oblonsky waiting to be shaved by one of his servants. The next five minute or so sequence lays out how the film will proceed and what we should expect. Scenes change with the slightest of ease, character’s movements are incredibly choreographed almost balletic and the bowels of the backstage are a fundamental keystone to proceedings.
It would be a great surprise if the production team of Katie Spencer (set decoration) Jacqueline Durran (costune design) and Sarah Greenwood (production design) didn’t pick up an award or two although Oscar has made some odd choices over the years. The look and style of the film is what sets it apart, making it a unique visual feast. Reminiscent of Baz Lurham just without the singing, Anna Karenina is a bold move for Wright and a big departure from his previous style with the likes of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. One of the reasons I fell in love with the book was for its depiction of Russia, both the countryside and almost unbelievable high society. While Wright has captured the intricacies of the elite perfectly, it is tougher to capture the landscape as so much of the piece is confined to the stage. However when the play ventures into the real world mainly to travel to Levin’s abode it looks stunning. If this doesn’t satisfy your Russian fix you can always watch Dr. Zhivago again.
The acting from all concerned is great. Matthew Macfadyen is superb as Oblonsky, bringing a lot of the humour to the film, almost like a pantomime dame he cuts through all the nonsense while being a terrible husband, and yet you can’t help but have affection for him. Levin is one of the great literary characters, a forerunner to Atticus Finch if you will, noble, honest and earnest in his pursuit of love. Domhnall Gleeson does an outstanding job in portraying the frustrations of Levin, showing how much he cares for the people in his life be they family, friend or employee. Stoppard has captured the essence of Levin from the novel and Gleeson more than adequately translates this from page to screen. Jude Law provides a solid performance as the dedicated defender of Russia. You would feel it is merely a case of looks when it comes to Anna’s infidelity but through his dedication to his country Karenin has lost touch with his wife and his constant almost clerical approach to their union only pushes her into the arms of Vronsky.
One of the failings of some of the more choreographed scenes is that the emotional importance can get lost in the spectacle leaving exchanges feeling empty. This is most noticeable in some scenes between Anna and Vronsky and I feel it is more so down to Vronsky. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has a tough task to make you forget about his youth and portray someone with such raw sexual energy as to cause a wife of some standing to jeopardise her entire life. He doesn’t quite carry it off, although the more heated exchanges between the pair are very believable. Knightley’s performance makes up for it though, expertly depicting the raft of conflicting emotions Anna feels. Her sense of duty to her husband and the institution of marriage, her unquestionable love for her son and the passion she feels for someone who looks at her as the beautiful vibrant women she is, as opposed to a trophy wife confined to a shelf for the remainder of her days.
Stoppard has done an excellent job of choosing the relevant elements from the book to capture the hypocrisy of Russian society at the time. Anna’s brother who has had many affairs barely sees a blemish to his name while when Anna embarks on one she risks everything. The possibility of re-marrying, her complete exclusion from society and worst of all her son. The disparity between males and females is depressing and while you can dismiss this as another time it would appear we haven’t moved that far ahead if you merely look at the recent Twilight fallout.
Anna Karenina probably won’t be to everyone’s liking, but you have to admire what all involved have achieved. They’ve turned an epic work of fiction written nearly 140 years ago into a visual pleasing, novel and relevant piece of art. More so a testament to the genius of the book it still takes great skill and craftsmanship to put all the pieces of this unhappy family together.
UK, France / Directed By: Joe Wright / Written By: Tom Stoppard / Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams / 130min / Drama / Release: 7 September 2012 (Ireland/UK), 16 November 2012 (US/Canada)