Home > Film, Literature, Reviews > Film Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

Film Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina (2012; Directed by Joe Wright)

You just knew that, sooner rather than later, Keira Knightley was going to play Anna Karenina. Each role of her post-Pirates of the Caribbean career phase as the pre-eminent young British female lead in serious, post-modern costume dramas has seen her orbit nearer to that most blazing sun of classic, tragic protagonist woman characters. The desirable, romantic Russian aristocratic who tosses aside her respectable attachment to an honourable man of affairs (Jude Law) for a passionate and self-destructive love affair with a dashing army officer (Aaron Johnson) is one of the towering figures of world literature, and has a considerable cinematic heritage as well, where Anna has previously been played by iconic Hollywood actresses Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh.

Knightley has always been an odd specimen as a physical presence on film. Thin, elongated, and poised as a crane, her jutting chin and ineffable Anglo-Saxon-ness (she never even bothers to try on foreign accents) make her perfectly suited to heroines both proud and strong and inherently mercurial and unstable. Her fluctuations from joy to indignance to fevered jealousy and mental disruption as Anna all vibrate with the self-same flighty energy. And yet, even as Knightley sinks her physical being into the psychic ordeals of Leo Tolstoy’s complex, tortured upper-class adulteress, she effortlessly holds herself above the fray with an ethereal aristocratic snobbishness, a dignity that Anna carries herself with through the worst of the social censure that her misdeeds engender (and only serves to further infuriate her high-society persecutors and intensify their ostracizing). It’s difficult to identify Anna Karenina with any one actress who plays her, in the way that Audrey Hepburn conquered Natasha Rostov forever in the otherwise compromised 1956 Hollywood War and Peace, but the revelation of this adaptation is just how valid and plausible a conduit for the character’s being Knightley proves to be.

If only the film that contains her strangely compelling turn was as worthy of its literary subject matter. Director Joe Wright, who also collaborated with star Knightley on an uneven version of Pride and Prejudice and a stronger adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, layers the artifice onto Tolstoy’s exquisitely detailed portrayal of the implications of quotidian social interactions in the Imperial Russia of the 1870s in a quite literally theatrical way. The film’s settings are stylistically interwoven with the stage, audience pit, balconies, backstage, and upper catwalks of an old theatre. Characters move through the wings, flat scenery backdrops are shifted and passed through; a key horseracing sequence involves the horse ridden by Anna’s lover Count Vronsky (Johnson) tumbling over the lights at the end of the stage; doors open from the set to a remote snowy field, and the final shot is of gently swaying grass filling the entire theatre.

As visually striking as Wright’s theatre conceit is (and the influence of acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay, cannot be ignored either), its thematic grounding in Tolstoy’s masterpiece is more tenuous. It’s true that the wide social sprawl and moral magnanimity of Tolstoy’s great novel of manners inspires general underappreciation of its fine, deliberate construction; the world and the people in it seem so vividly real that it’s easy to lose sight of the puppetmaster’s strings. The first meeting of Anna and Vronsky takes place over a deadly railroad accident that unsubtly foreshadows the tragic heroine’s final fate (and Wright seeds visions of locomotives throughout Anna’s breakdown); Anna’s adultery is likewise anticipated by that of her brother Oblonsky (a rather amusing Matthew Macfayden), and is contextualized by the warmer glow of the romance between Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his eventual wife Kitty (Alicia Vikander).

So Anna Karenina, like most narratives, is highly constructed and fundamental artificial, despite its aura of truth and believability. Does Wright’s attention-drawing theatrical conceit gesture to an awareness of this structuring? Is it more focused on exposing and critiquing the intricate poses and rules of appearances and decorum inherent to the 19th century aristocratic society that judges and rejects Anna for her perceived sins? To get to the point, is it deconstructive in nature?

The answer is: No, not really. There’s a wonderful, hilarious passage in War and Peace wherein Tolstoy presents the superficial histrionics of an operatic performance with withering deconstructive wryness, describing the onstage display with a pitiless literality that lays bare the basic ludicrousness of the representation. Though it would have taken considerable cajones to approach a canonical work with just such fresh and deconstructionist eyes, it would have been not merely a valid but even a fascinating exercise.

But Wright’s amplified performativity stays on the surface. There’s much artful intertwining of bodies, hands, arms (in particular in a ballroom dance that is very much not period), and flowing, elegant dressings and undressings. The dance-like choreography and theatrical settings do not deconstruct Anna Karenina so much as reconstruct it as something it’s not. The choices are stylistic and audacious, but make little sense for a text without much of a heritage on the stage. Indeed, the viewer feels like Wright is tiptoeing up to the edge of some species of glitzy stage musical; one practically expects the characters to burst into song at any moment.

There is much to recommend this Anna Karenina. Knightley is shocking apt as Anna, Jude Law is superbly contained as Karenin, the costumes, sets, and cinematography are sumptuous throughout, and the Levin-Kitty counternarrative is more faithfully adapted than it usually is (down to a swelling take on his proposal scene to her, adapting the chalk and slate from Tolstoy’s novel – and his real life – into children’s letter blocks). But the conceit is pre-eminent, and this is consistently, naggingly an issue. It stubbornly keeps Joe Wright’s adaptation from greatness, if it was ever much of a threat to be great at all.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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  1. July 23, 2014 at 8:25 pm

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