Directed By: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen
We’re in Russia, it’s 1874, and the curtain is about to go up on Anna Karenina. This may be a film, but there is something self-consciously stagey, or rather staged, about Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s famous epic.
In several scenes the camera zooms out, allowing us to see that the action is actually playing out in an empty theatre. It’s an interesting technique that frames Tolstoy’s characters, including (but not limited to) Anna herself, as both actors and spectators, performing their assumed roles while simultaneously observing and judging the performances of others. However, while I was impressed by the sophisticated choreography of certain scenes, it was at times a needless distraction that pulled me out of the narrative and made it difficult for me to form any kind of emotional connection with the characters.
However, it would be somewhat unfair to lay the blame for this solely with Stoppard or with Joe Wright, the film’s director, when the casting of the leading roles has raised many a critical eyebrow. Keira Knightley as the film’s tragic heroine is not entirely successful at conveying all of the many facets of Anna’s character, but she does at least come across as passionate, which is more than can be said for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Count Vronsky. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by Karenin, who is played by a suitably cold and masterful Jude Law, and by Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s brother, Oblonsky.
The greatest challenge facing anyone wishing to adapt Anna Karenina, especially for the big screen, is its sheer size and complexity. As I predicted, Stoppard achieves this by cutting back most of the material that does not relate either to Anna, Vronsky and Karenin on the one hand or to Konstantin Levin (played by Domhnall Gleeson) on the other. Even so, Levin’s role has been greatly reduced, to the extent that most of the significance of his actions will be lost on anyone not familiar with the novel. For example, in one particularly famous chapter Levin spends some time working alongside the agricultural labourers on his country estate. In the film, we are presented with the scene itself, but without much context and without any of his accompanying reflection on the relationship between the peasants and the land, meaning that much of the effect is lost.
Still, as a portrait of the society critiqued so ruthlessly by Tolstoy, I would say that Anna Karenina is a great success. There are hints throughout that, unlike Karenin, who views his wife’s infidelity as a “sin” or as a crime against God, almost everyone else is willing to overlook Anna’s adultery but unable to forgive her indiscretion. “If she’d only broken the law,” says one character, Anna would not have been ostracised; “but she broke the rules.” In this intricate performance, the punishment for stepping out of line is severe.