While film is now acknowledged to be an art form unto itself, it didn’t start that way. As is natural given the players involved, the industry surrounding it sprung from the theatre, and an appreciation of film, especially in the early sound era, mostly surrounded the elements on could find onstage – engaging story and performances. It’s still that way in many circles. The relationship between stage and screen, and each to our lives, is central to Joe Wright’s adaptation/re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
The more overt thematic thrust of the film is a meditation on the rights, both legal and social, accorded to women in 19th century Russia through the story of a woman who has an affair, but is never able to truly leave her husband. As Anna, Keira Knightley gives one of the finest performances of her career, as vulnerable as she’s ever been onscreen without the mechanisms that drove her in A Dangerous Method. Anna’s an intensely difficult character to play, one almost pointedly devoid of typical touchstones of sympathy, to the point that a few audience members chuckled at her more egregious emotional outburts. While I can sympathize with such a gut reaction, I’d ask viewers to take a more sophisticated approach, one which calls to mind the entire point of melodrama – to explore interior emotion in the exterior. Not a terribly popular notion in art of the modern era, but all the more urgent for it.
That the object of her affection is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky is perhaps some of the reason for such snickers. Taylor-Johnson suffers not for a lack of confidence, but merely the charisma to back it up, resulting in a false bravado all too common to actors as young as he. Though that serves its own thematic purpose – Anna’s chasing a false ideal clothed in the allure of youth – it doesn’t help to get us on Anna’s side, but that’s not entirely the point of the film either. While we are meant to be outraged at the injustice done to Anna – by the law, by her friends, by every room she walks into as soon as her affair becomes public knowledge – she’s something of a pitiable character as well, given as she is to indulge whatever her whim may be. That her husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), is as decent as a man can be given the circumstances (and he declares as much), only makes the pill harder to swallow. But this is a complex morality uncommon to screens. Just because the protagonist is not heroic doesn’t mean she can’t be our hero, and we recognize on some level that Anna should be able to chase any ridiculous goal she may have, even as that goal destroys her in every sense beyond the immediate.
And then…there is the theatre. A great deal of the film (exact percentages escape me) was shot at Shepperton Studios, on a set meant to replicate a rundown theater. The result is often dizzying, as props and walls and sets and even trains come rushing onscreen as characters change locations, frequently in choreographed, dance-like movements, and not uncommonly in a single take. It’s as perfect a marriage of the two mediums as I’ve seen, allowing us to admire all the vast synchronization required to pull off a stage show, while the movement of the camera, swirling and diving as it does, emphasizes the cinema. It’s a beautiful experience, one that recalls (and I do not compare them lightly) such Powell & Pressburger films as The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffman, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Wright has tossed out a few reasons for this decision, noting that, in his research, he found that Russian aristocracy of the time lived their lives as though on a stage, but beyond the gut-level feeling that, somehow, this is just right, I’d say there’s something else at play here, too. Wherever Anna goes, she is trapped not only by the rules and customs of Russian society, but by her own past decisions, and the concept of starting over, even in a new location, is entirely absent. To be trapped in a single, ever-morphing structure is as natural a take on the material as any other, and more so than a great many.
That unique production decision, combined with Wright’s ever-perfect eye for composition, and Tom Stoppard’s considerable contribution in adapting the novel for screen, makes for a uniquely thrilling cinematic experience, one in which many disperate elements find uncommon synchronicity. I understand the novel is a great deal more complex than the film, and that some nuances are necessarily extracted, so if my fondness for the film is in any way the result of ignorance, I hope you’ll forgive it. However, what the film accomplishes on its own terms is a formidable feat, and the extent to which I was thrilled by its aesthetic was matched only by that to which I was decimated by its drama. Better still, by the manner in which the two informed one another.
Anna Karenina will be released in select cities on November 16th.