Anna Karenina – Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard squeeze Tolstoy down to theatre size (film review)

I was rather shocked to find, as I was researching this film, that the story of Anna Karenina has been made into a film twenty-five times. It was considered by Dostoyevsky – a favorite writer of mine – to be the greatest novel ever written, and Dostoyevsky is not alone in that opinion. Having seen many films and many adaptations of many books through the years, I could tell we weren’t getting the meat of Anna Karenina the novel, even though I haven’t read the novel myself. The major themes of lust, jealousy and Anna’s famous destructive downward spiral are somewhat sacrificed in Joe Wright’s adaptation for other elements, which I will go into, but which leave the viewer wondering why a director would apply all of this to a novel that virtually can’t be adapted properly.

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That is not in any way a criticism of Tom Stoppard who does a fine task in adapting the novel. It speaks simply to the size of the novel.  Tolstoy’s novel is almost one thousand pages long, and every single word is essential. A screen adaptation cannot possibly hope to capture the power and the nuances that go into placing such complex subject matter into our grasp. Because of this, Wrights adaptation seems to be one for the passionate lover of the novel, a person who is familiar with it, and has read it several times. It is perhaps only this viewer that might be able to grasp the full implications of the interpretation that Wright and Stoppard have offered us. I haven’t seen Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, but I have seen Atonement.  There are similarities in Wright’s interpretations – most notably how fast paced and “gap-defying” each film is.

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It is the staging in Anna Karenina, however, that hints at a depth Wright is trying to reach that I sensed in Atonement also, that I might carefully suggest he has not found yet, despite the films fifty million dollar budget. The film is “set” on a stage  – and off a stage – the person sitting next to me commented “Oh, How Baz Luhrmann” when the film started, and I do agree with that comment. The Vaudevillian component here seems more Luhrmann and Lehman than Bergman and Brecht. There are times when this works to absolute perfection.  Jude Law as Karenin (who is really good and still sexy when monastic) sits in a field of daisies on the stage that spills over into the audience space which has been stripped of its seating and its audience and watches Anna’s children play in the wake of her death.  This is a stunning moment, beautifully portrayed. Then the horse race where Anna (Keira Knightly is a lovely Anna, and definitely moving away from the rapid-fire voice technique that so hampers her) reveals her love for Vronsky in public when performed on stage looks stupid and clumsy and weirdly detracts from one of the most powerful and important moments in the book.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is a cute but foppish Vronsky, and unfortunately no real match for Jude Law.  The women in my audience spent a lot of time asking why would she leave him for him?

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And yet, Wright really has his finger on the perfect pulse in staging emotional scenes. I was quite swept away by the dance where Anna and Vronsky first realize they have genuine feelings for each other, and scenes of Karenin noticing her flirtations with Vronsky and the impact these are having on society and their name are also done very well. These are emotionally charged and speak to the potent whirlwind of emotions that have the power to sweep people away from reason and in most cases, their true love. However, Anna’s jealousy, so important and the natural flip side to her initial passions, are played down more, and the parallel between the two is lost. This is one of Tolstoy’s key themes in the novel and its an enormous shame that someone who can film a feeling so well misses out on the opportunity to draw this line for us.

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Anna Karenina trailer 2

I don’t know much about Joe Wright, except for the Kira Knightly trilogy, and because sections of this film are so good (and reminded me very strongly of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander – Bergman has to be an influence on Wright) in places I’m left with a strong feeling of hope for what might come in the future. Even if he might not be able to re-create his vision entirely he is experimental and interesting enough for me to feel excited that he is on a path that has the potential to realize great works of cinema.

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