You'll Either Love or Hate the Latest Adaptation of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" Review

Taking on one of the grandest set pieces in all of Modern Literature is an outsized task for any director. The contours of the story are already well-known to audiences, change anything and there is a good chance that someone will balk, whether they be critics or the hoi polloi or both. In this light director Joe Wright deserves a great deal of credit for his daring new adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have taken a timeless story of love and intrigue and fashioned it into a film that you will likely either love or hate.

It begins with Anna’s iconic train ride to Moscow where she has been called upon to sort out the sordid affair between her philandering brother, Stiva, and her sister-in-law, Dolly. Little does she know that the disquiet in the Oblonsky household will soon become the least of her concerns. Upon her arrival she meets Vronsky, a dashing young cavalry officer who has come to meet his mother. From their first meeting the infatuation begins; Vronsky pursuits the married Anna at the cost of his relationship with his current paramour, the princess Katerina Scherbatsky, or, as she is better known, Kitty. At the very same moment Vronsky’s rival in courtship, the shy, but still passionate, Konstantin Levin arrives with the intention of asking the princess for her hand in marriage. So it is that Tolstoy lays out the two counterposing romances that build the main thread of one of greatest novels of all-time. By now the story is familiar to us: one of the couples has a passionate, tempestuous, and, ultimately, disastrous affair, the other forges a restorative and peaceful life for themselves away from the corrupting temptations of the city.

At first glance Wright has produced a sumptuous film; the production is absolutely fantastic. We are immediately struck by the beauty of the oversaturated color palate, the magnificent moving camerawork (the ball scene is particularly stunning), and Jacqueline Durran’s gorgeous costumes. Regardless of whether or not critics like this movie, no one can deny that it is a very pretty movie. The actors, for their part, do well enough to let the production and direction of the film take center stage. Keira Knightley has her usual histrionics on display as Anna, though they suit this role better than others she has played in the past. Jude Law, who plays Karenin, Anna’s dutiful and long-suffering husband, easily rises above the rest of the cast with his sympathetic portrayal of a talented, but boring, career bureaucrat. Only Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems slightly miscast in the role of Vronsky. Vronsky, a tough cavalry officer in a Russian military that prided itself on manliness (as military men are wont to do) would have been better served with a little less pretty and little more mean. The rest of the cast knows that this not about them, and are content to let Wright take center stage as the real star of the production.

For Wright, the biggest challenge of adapting a dense tome of such magnitude, is communicating the novel’s many psychological penumbra and critiques of Russian high society. To do this he has chosen to eschew a conventional retelling of the story in favor of a theatrical “staging” of the novel. Whether the stage is allegorical or whether we are watching a movie about a play based on a novel is never definitively answered (I personally chose to see it as a the former). At times Wright directs his actors away from conventional modes of representation instead selecting the more esoteric technique of “distancing.” For those familiar with Brecht and Artaud it might be like seeing an old friend in an unfamiliar place, but, I suspect, that for the majority of viewers the weirdness of an avant-garde theater technique will detract from the enjoyment of the film.

Still, distancing is more than just a self-congratulatory exercise for people who studied theater in college. What Wright tries to do is to establish an allegorical connection between the artificiality of the theater (the audience is literally shown the machinations of the moving sets many times in the film) with the artificiality of the Russian noble classes. In doing so he manages to accurately capture the spirit (if not the tone) of Tolstoy’s critique. Tolstoy was intimately familiar with the comings and goings of the late 19th century Russian nobility (he was Count Tolstoy after all), and what he despised most about his fellow nobleman was their slavish devotion to an obscure set of codes, which he perceived as being imposed upon the Russians by the rest of Europe (especially France). In Anna Karenina the city comes to represent the corrupting influence of that code and of modernism in general. After all nobody in the novel (or film) is at fault per se, rather they are pushed along, some more willingly than others, a path that has already been determined by them by “the rules.” Anna’s sin was to stray from this path, and with that her ostracisation and ruin were mere byproducts of the society in which she lived. Wright’s clever observation is simply that Tolstoy’s characters resemble actors reading their parts. 

Anna Karenina is doubtlessly one of the more difficult films to open this year. That it received major distribution and production deals is a minor miracle in itself (almost enough to make you want to come see it on that basis alone, just to encourage the decision-makers in Hollywood). Moreover, it is a beautiful film well worth the challenge for anyone interested in film and its possibilities as an artform. 

"Anna Karenina" opens November 16, 2012 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Tom Stoppard (screenplay), Leo Tolstoy (novel). Starring Jude Law, Keira Knightley, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfadyen.

Juan Guzman • Staff Writer

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