Joe Wright's version of Anna Karenina (2012), the umpteenth version of that story, reunites Wright with his muse, Kiera Knightley. It's one of several pedigreed literary adaptations littering this year's awards season (others include Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights and Tom Hooper's Les Miserables), and like those films, this one attempts to breathe new life into the story with bold formal experiments. This is a film for which the word "stagebound" is not a pejorative so much as it's a blank description of what one sees on screen. Wright and his screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, have imagined Anna Karenina as a deranged stage production in which the theater serves as the world. It's a bold choice. It creates unexpected visual textures and unusual scene transitions. Whether or not this is the story for which this approach is appropriate is something that can be debated.
The story in a (greatly condensed) nutshell: Anna is married to Alexei Karenin, an important minister with the Imperial government. It's a good marriage and it has given Anna a son upon whom she dotes. She doesn't love her husband, per se, but she's fond of him. He's a good, moral man, who observes the proprieties of marriage and insists that she do the same. Whatever passion she might have in her she expends as a mother. Until, that is, she travels to Moscow to help her brother, Count Oblonsky, repair his marriage. His pregnant wife, Dolly, has found out about one of his many affairs and has driven him away. Anna brokers her forgiveness. Unfortunately for Anna, she meets Vronsky, a dashing young cavalry officer, at the train station and falls deeply in love with him. Their passion soon blooms into an affair, which Anna is none too concerned about concealing from the world. Theirs is a true love, after all. It's not that simple, though, because people begin to talk, and eventually word of it makes its way to Karenin, who refuses to believe it until the evidence is too much to ignore. Even then, he resigns himself to the affair so long as Anna keeps it out of the public sphere. Anna fails to do this. She becomes pregnant with Vronsky's child, and the break with Karenin, who refuses her a divorce, becomes bitter. Society has taken note of the affair, too, and soon, she is a pariah, locked in a downward spiral. Vronsky, for his part, is being shopped around for advantageous marriage by his mother, and soon, Anna becomes jealous of him. She can't take it anymore. Contrasting with Anna is her brother, who has casual affairs and seems none the worse for it, either in his marriage or in the eyes of society. Also in contrast is Leven, Oblonsky's friend from the country who is smitten with Princess Katerina. Theirs is a true love and a loving marriage, an ideal against which Anna can never measure herself. Anna's crime may be love, but her greater crime is breaking society's rules, hypocritical though they may be.
Anna is one of those great parts for actresses that will be reprised ad infinitum, because it lets an actress play a huge range of emotions, from love to madness to despair. Anna Karenina is also a story that has in it a core of feminist outrage at the unequal lot of women compared to men when it comes to controlling their own sexual agency. It's high minded and it lets an actress suffer beautifully on screen. Kiera Knightley is a splendid Anna, and she's surrounded by a terrific cast. This could have been a staid, respectable production on the strength of the cast, though it does have a weak link in the callow, pretty Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose Vronsky doesn't measure up to the screen presence of the more measured and stately Jude Law, who plays Karenin. One wonders what Anna sees in him. I did, anyway, but we love who we love, I guess. Obviously, this is a story that could positively drip with bathos. I should be thankful that this production avoids that trap. I should, but I wish it were less intellectual than it is. The form of this film creates a disconnect from the story. Both the form and the content are striking on their own, but they work at cross purposes to one another.
Don't get me wrong: this is never less than fun to watch. Sometimes, the formal audacity is thrilling, regardless of what's on screen. The film punctures its own artifice, too, by letting its theatricality spill out from the proscenium that opens the movie into the theater itself: the wings, the rafters, the lobby, and the auditorium (from which the seats have all been removed). It accomplishes an interesting merging of the "real" with the theatrical, too, when, having broken away from its theatrical conceit into location work in Karelia, Russia, it merges them in its final shot. Parts of the film remind me of Georges Méliès While the film was unspooling, I was really grooving on all of this. But it doesn't serve the theme or the plot. It's outside of its content. The artifice places a barrier between the story and the audience. I'm not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to do this, though I suppose style exists for its own sake.
The story itself works well enough, though a familiarity with Tolstoy is helpful given how thoroughly they've trimmed the novel (a practical necessity, dubiously accomplished). It's well acted. Tom Stoppard's screenplay distills many of Tolstoy's thematic concerns down to witty epigrams. There's great economy in this adaptation. As I've said, the performances are good. And yet, there's something cold about this. Anna Karenina is one of the all time great weepies, and it's almost as if the filmmakers are trying to subvert that. This is an ironic and self-reflexive film, I think, but it's a film where irony isn't necessarily a virtue. The weird thing for me about Anna Karenina is that it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. I loved watching it even while my brain was picking it apart. Take that however you will.