‘Anna Karenina’ marriages film and stage for tale of adultery

Keira Knightley stars in 'Anna Karenina'
Keira Knightley stars in ‘Anna Karenina’

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is certainly Leo Tolstoy’s classic as you’ve never seen it before. An often breathless conversation between filmic and theatrical language, writer Tom Stoppard’s adaptation literally puts heroine Anna and her Russian cohorts on stage in plain view of all. The message in this work about passion between the classes is a constant reminder that when it comes to decisions of the heart, everyone is watching. Love is a spectator sport that doesn’t always guarantee a victor – though it will always declare a loser.

Karenina makes gorgeously accessible what has often proved to be an intimidating plot to those charged with reading it, though what Stoppard has mined here proves most universal and juicy. Anna (Keira Knightley) was a young bride to statesman Alexi Karenin (Jude Law). After her brother, Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), cheats on wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Anna treks from St. Petersburg to Moscow to intervene. Lust, however, becomes contagious, as Anna encounters the impish Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and embarks on an impulsive affair.

The team of Stoppard and Wright treat this transgression with great poetry. Stoppard, one of the world’s pre-eminent dramatists, has created a view where nineteenth century Russia is literally onstage, as most of the film’s action takes place within an actual theater. Whole sequences take place on the stage, in the wings, and in the audience so as to call effect to the story’s innate theatricality rather than hide from it. Ensembles dance a waltz in ball scenes, then freeze so that we can concentrate on the film’s leads (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui did the choreography). It’s a reminder that all of Anna’s choices are on display for the world to see. It’s a rather basic choice that toes a dangerous line: should the decision feel too precious, too elementary, it could subvert the beauty of Tolstoy’s tragedy.

'Anna Karenina' works like a stage play on the silver screen
‘Anna Karenina’ works like a stage play on the silver screen

But it works. Stoppard, so comfortable with the rhythms and tricks of his trade, has provided the blueprint for a film that is buoyant and playful, and in the hands of exemplary production designer Sarah Greenwood, editor Melanie Oliver and sound editor Craig Berkey, a seamlessly sensual feast. And Wright, who has demonstrated before his facility for achieving works of on-screen wonder (see the post-war Dunkirk sequence that graces the middle of Atonement), is finally able to place his sense of visual élan on a more emotionally resonant shelf. Sequence after hypnotic sequence allows the straying Anna’s descent to register in our heart rather than just our head. It highlights the era’s grandeur but also its transparency.

Karenina’s potency also comes from its political and moral worldview, snuggled in like a Russian nesting doll represented by the rule-skirting heroine of the title as well as bucolic landowner Levin (a terrific Domhnall Gleason). Levin, generally seen to be a surrogate for the progressive Tolstoy himself, opposes serfdom and feels an affinity for land over material possessions. He also hopes to marry the young and virtuous Kitty (Alicia Vikander), though Kitty herself longs for Vronsky, a torch doused when he and Anna finally embark on their season of love. What chagrins Karenin most, meanwhile is not just how public his wife’s betrayal is, but the fact that it violates standard gender roles; women don’t cheat, men do. Law is magnificent in portraying low-simmering rage in the face of effrontery, while Knightley, in perhaps her first fully-realized mature performance, is the perfect embodiment of the emotional toll living in a patriarchy takes on women. And Stoppard and Wright, in cleverly consolidating the novel, use Levin to reflect the small-minded selfishness of its other male characters.

Eventually, however, the film’s charms of stagecraft begin to wane, making audiences long for Anna to make her final fateful decision. And if Taylor-Johnson never wholly assumes his role, he is surrounded by a host of supporting talents who lend all sorts of delicacy to the period tale: Macdonald, as a woman wronged who knows her place and knows the true meaning of love, is the perfect refraction to Knightley’s starry-eyed gaze, and Olivia Williams, as Vronsky’s mother, tells us everything we need to know about how women of stature keep it. Dario Marinelli’s score itself serves as a perfect commentary to the plot, while Jacqueline Durran’s handsome period costumes almost make fighting the frigid cold look desirable.

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