There are many films/roles that have, by virtue of the convoluted happenstance of Hollywood history, become institutions of the film world, but perhaps none of them are such odd creatures in themselves as Anna Karenina. Garbo brought Anna to the forefront in 1935, and that was already a remake of her own role, when in 1927 we decided to call the thing Love. Vivien Leigh gave it her spin in 1948, which added some weight to the cultural mountain, and there have been well over a score of efforts (depending on how “legitimate” something needs to be to count – or from what country) at bringing the haunting Russian to life besides.
The reason Anna Karenina stands out as such an odd creature, with respect to her/its place in the film world, is that the real story is beyond the scope of what movies dare to convey, and this was never more true than during those golden days of Hollywood when the role/story buried its claws into the industry.
I’ll say “she” from now on, because she’s the actual problem. The unusual-sounding statement, which is especially so because obviously the film world has in fact taken to the character, comes by way of the fact that the character is supposed to be unsympathetic to a degree that is, or at least certainly was, almost the antithesis of what it means to make a movie, and attach a big name to it.
Oddly enough, Tolstoy had more on his agenda than telling the story of an extramarital affair, and while the story centers on Anna, it certainly isn’t about her (or, depending on your bent, “about” her). It’s a story about politics, status, social rules, and moral structures, and it is a story that has a certain use for Anna, which actually works as brilliantly as it does as a story specifically because it leaves us almost completely devoid of sympathy for her. That’s the sort of thing that may or may not manage to be a classic novel, but it isn’t going to sell tickets.
How this works out then, is that the film roles to this point have delivered a more sympathetic Anna, to one degree or another, and at the very least, one that we were happy to go along with for 90 minutes or so. Of course, it also worked out by not really giving us quite so much of what the novel is truly after, which means, among other things, far less depth of character coming through from Levin and Kitty.
Thus, Anna Karenina is a legendary movie role, that got that way by not delivering the “actual” role, and by doing so within the context of what is not the “actual” story… until now.
Combining the efforts of Tom Stoppard as screenwriter and Joe Wright (Hanna, Atonement) as director, the latest Anna Karenina is a visual masterpiece, and an impressive feat of storytelling. Not only does the film actually manage a version of Anna far more true to the original work, it also delivers on the main notes Tolstoy is actually after, particularly the third act responses of Levin and Vronsky.
Anna (Keira Knightley) is about as high in Russian social circles as she can be. Married to a high-ranking, and respected, government official, Karenin (Jude Law), Anna has the world before her, and thinks herself pretty happy to boot. A trip to Moscow puts her in contact with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and their instant attraction becomes a love affair that will throw many lives on different courses.
The first change in the air will involve Kitty, a princess, because she has recently put off a marriage proposal by Levin, because she thought she was in love with Vronsky. The wheels spin wildly as relationships intertwine, and the whole machine makes its effort to work like… well, clockwork, despite the wrenches being thrown with reckless abandon at society’s rules.
The film opens with a stage, and the actors move around it, to some degree as though not of their own accord, and wander off stage, as though oblivious to the fact that there is any stage at all, only to find themselves surrounded by new sets and in new situations. The metaphor is simple, but perfectly executed, and it makes for both a well-played narrative device and a visual feast. We continue with this stylized charade intermittently at various points, when we are at the will and whim of society’s prying eyes, moving to more natural settings when, for example, out in the country, or when we’ve been ostracized to a degree that society no longer looks at us… or when in bedrooms.
Because we so intimately follow along with Anna and her downward spiral, and become familiar with the devices at play against her, we get the heart of the matter, which is decidedly difficult to get on screen. Tolstoy’s ultimate play is a tricky one, but in terms of the film, what he is most after is the third act expression on Vronsky’s face as he looks at Anna, and Levin’s realization near the film’s end which leads him to declare that now he understands. With the juice available in the story’s extramarital affair and surrounding gossip, neither of these things have even really been attempted before, and they are offered up here on a silver plate.
Put all this together with a spot on score and superb, if sometimes limited, performances by the likes of Olivia Williams, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, and Domhnall Gleeson, and this one is sure to win over even the most hesitant of audiences.
The only problems I had with it are that Kitty, Levin, and especially comic-relief character Oblonsky could really have used more time, but if you’re only gripe in a film is that it might have been longer, you’re talking about a film that is rare company indeed.
Tom Stoppard Featurette
- Anna Karenina Review: A Dusty Tale Is Revived by Inventive Filmmaking (people.com)
- Is “Anna Karenina” a Love Story? (newyorker.com)
- Anna Karenina: Keira Knightley Gives Her All for Love (entertainment.time.com)