Joe Wright’s new vision of Anna Karenina is indeed every bit as bold as the ads claim it to be. Rather than present audiences with a straightforward period costume drama, as has been done eleven times previously for film and television, he and screenwriter Tom Stoppard intentionally blur the line between cinema and stage, the action unfolding as a series of skits that are either completely contained within or organically extended beyond the boundaries of a live theater production. Rigging is plainly visible, as are stagehands, musicians, and footlights. The scenes are performed on the main stage, in the wings, and in the orchestra section of the audience, where the seats are conveniently absent. The actors’ movements are occasionally choreographed, even when they’re not dancing. Some of the scenes shift as they would in a play, with plywood flats raised and lowered into position.
This theatrical approach, stylistically speaking, never once fails to capture the audience’s attention. Here is a film that’s not only visually spectacular – the costumes are detailed, the sets combine realistic opulence and onstage artificialness, the color scheme is beautifully vibrant – but is also a rather clever blending of Wright’s cinematic flair and Stoppard’s playful dramaturgy. The latter is especially prominent, given the playwright’s penchant for word play and wittiness; although at heart the same tragedy it has always been, this particular adaptation doesn’t shy away from moments of levity. This is evident most notably in the character of Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), the title character’s perpetually womanizing brother. To call him comedy relief would be an oversimplification. He’s merely more amusing than he used to be.
This is not to suggest that this film is the definitive adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, the story of a married mother who, in nineteenth-century tsarist Russia, creates a scandal in high society by having an affair with a Calvary officer. It’s undeniably wonderful to look at and refreshingly daring in its narrative approach, although it’s obvious Wright and Stoppard were less interested in the plot and more interested in ways to creatively reinterpret it. This works to a point, but eventually, you’re bound to think that there’s too much style and not enough substance. Perhaps Wright and Stoppard believed that, because the story has become so well known, one is less inclined notice when something is structurally, technically, or characteristically lacking. Or perhaps they were simply swept up in the excitement of fulfilling their own artistic desires, so much so that they forgot to consider the desires of the audience.
One of the film’s biggest issues is a lopsided balance between the two main plot points, namely those of the title character and Konstantin Levin, the smitten landowner whose love for Oblonsky’s young sister-in-law initially went unrequited. The 1997 film adaptation, in which Alfred Molina played Levin, suffered from the same problem, albeit to a much greater degree. For this new film, the solution, I believe, would have been to do what most of the earlier adaptations did and virtually eliminate his half of the story. Far be it from me to ruffle the feathers of literary purists (God forbid I refuse to compare novels with screenplay adaptations or offer the criticism that the latter can sometimes be better), but the way I see it, the title pretty much dictates which character should be given the most attention.
To be sure, most of the actors rise to the challenges of their respective roles. Keira Knightley’s take on Anna Karenina, the lovelorn and socially shunned aristocrat, is nothing short of magnetic. Jude Law is in great form as Anna’s husband, senior statesman Alexei Karenin, who may have a vindictive streak and yet is far from a one-note villainous caricature. I am forced to question the casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky, Anna’s lover; although he delivers his lines professionally and most certainly has an onscreen presence, he looks and behaves too young to convincingly come off as an experienced army officer. Indeed, he was only twenty-one at the time of principal photography. The character demands an actor roughly eight to ten years older, someone slightly more mature both physically and emotionally.
Stories that have been adapted to film multiple times typically spark debate over which version is best, subjective though it may be. Most audiences, I suspect, will automatically choose the 1935 film starring Greta Garbo, if only because it’s the most famous and acclaimed of the Anna Karenina adaptations. At the risk of being a cinematic blasphemer, I believe we’ve been venerating the wrong film; it was oversimplified, overacted, and painfully overstated as a melodrama. My personal preference is the 1948 film starring Vivien Leigh, which is subtler, better looking, better performed, and far less one-dimensional in its approach to plot and character. This new 2012 film may not be quite up to that level, but I have to give it credit for its unique sense of style.
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