Being famous as one of the great works in Russian literature, Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel “Anna Karenina” has been adapted into movies and TV miniseries so many times since 1910 that I am sure most of you are already familiar with its basic storyline even if you have not read it. To be frank with you, I finally read the book during my recent Chinese New Year holiday, and, though I read it a little too quickly during one day, I was glad to learn that the book was far more than a depressing melodrama about a doomed romantic affair between two gorgeous people; it is really a good, thoughtful human story to read if you have lots of free time to spend.
While it will not be regarded as the definite movie version of Tolstoy’s novel(has such a thing ever existed?), Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” attempts an interesting approach to its source. While Tom Stoppard’s screenplay omits or condenses many parts of the novel through its adaptation process just like many other movie versions did, the movie presents the story as a sort of virtual play in the big theater where the characters move around the stage and the other places as being carried along with their dramas. After all, the life in the high society of European countries during the 19th century was the theatrical show for its members, wasn’t it?
There are strict rules in this superficial play of theirs to maintain their façades, and Anna Karenina(Keira Knightley) unwisely breaks those rules for following that unstoppable desire inside her heart. Her luxurious life with her cold, bureaucratic husband Karenin(Jude Law) is not that bad for several reasons including her adorable young son, but, when she comes to Moscow for persuading her sister-in-law Dolly(Kelly Macdonald) not to leave her philandering brother Oblonsky(Matthew Macfadyen – channeling Kevin Kline on blowhard mode), she coincidentally encounters a young, handsome military officer Count Vronsky(Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and, as reflected by an ominous accident at the train station, her fate is sealed instantly when their eyes meet.
Even before they finally hurl themselves into their mutual heedless passion, everybody around them senses what is going on between them. Karenin, who is concerned about her reputation as well as his, sternly warns her of what will happen if she is not careful. It is one thing to have an affair behind his back, but it is the other thing to reveal her infidelity right in front of others. Karenin has usually been portrayed as heartless bastard in many movie versions(I particularly remember well Basil Rathbone’s mean performance in the 1935 version starring Greta Garbo), but Karenin in this version comes to us as an unloving but pragmatic man who tries to take care of his difficult matter as sensibly as possible while following the rules he firmly sticks to.
As following Anna’s rise and fall in her romance with Vronsky, the movie also gives some space to another major plot in Tolstoy’s novel, which has been usually discarded or contracted in its film adaptations. Oblonsky’s close friend Levin(Domhnall Gleeson), a young landowner as idealistic as Tolstoy himself, comes to Moscow for proposing to a girl he has been carrying a torch for, but he is devastated to realize that Kitty(Alicia Vikander) is infatuated with Vronsky. Kitty also feels hurt by discovering the bond between Vronsky and Anna, but it does not take that long for these two brokenhearted young people to find their true feelings remaining intact.
All these things are presented to us mostly within the limited space of the movie as it lightly moves the story with its enjoyable theatrical style, and the movie provides several good moments as the cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s camera fluidly moves here and there around the theater. We are constantly reminded of its stylized environment through the backstage scenes or the scenes on the rafter(we even get a horse race scene as the stage expands to the whole theater), and the characters frequently behave like the actors on the stage as they enter or exit their scenes. I was especially amused by the mechanical rhythmic movements of Oblonsky’s clerks in his workplace; they make the scene almost look like a stage musical scene as accompanied with Dario Marianelli’s score, and Marianelli’s excellent score also makes a significant contribution to the ballroom sequence which pushes its theatrical aspects almost to fantasy level for capturing the swirling emotions inside it.
But I felt distant about its content while excited by its surface. Anna and Vronsky become more unsympathetic and self-absorbed especially when their relationship is going down toward that famous tragic ending, and the artificial aspect of the movie makes us feel more distant to what is happening to them and their relationship. We are supposed to feel pity for Anna and, to the extent, Vronsky as a couple who unfortunately fails to control their hearts, but they more look like a foolish couple who deserves their social punishment for their unwise choice.
Keira Knightley is a good choice for a tragic melodramatic heroine like Anna, but her Anna is not someone we can easily identify with. As surrounded by the busy background and going through many turbulent emotions, her performance is unevenly maintained on high-tone levels, and we do not have many chances to get intimated with Anna’s mind in the movie as a result. We do not feel enough pity for her wretched state later in the story, and, because there is not much chemistry between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, we cannot even care a lot about their characters’ doomed romance, although it goes without saying that the end of their romance is sad and tragic.
In contrast, I cared more about the supporting characters. Jude Law, who could have been a good Vronsky when he was younger, gives a sympathetic performance as a cuckolded husband who has only led his life as his brain says; Karenin may be uncaring, but he is not a cruel man, and we gradually see his heart as wounded as his pride behind Law’s seemingly monotonous appearance. Although they have a few scenes together, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are good as a more engaging and sympathetic couple in the movie, and there is a poignant scene when they tentatively approach to each other’s heart during their private moment.
On the technical level, “Anna Karenina” is impressively theatrical, but, on the emotional level, it is distantly shallow. Like the director Joe Wright’s previously films “Pride and Prejudice”(2005) and “Atonement”(2007), the movie is a gorgeous literature adaptation, and its visual sensitivity is mixed well with its excellent production design and costumes which surely deserve the recent Oscar nominations(The movie is Oscar-nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Production Design, and Best Costume), but I don’t think this is a successful adaptation. Anyway, despite its problems, this is an interesting attempt to be distinguished amid the other versions which came before it and the future ones which will definitely come after it.