There have been many adaptations of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s alarmingly massive novel about high society in imperial Russia, often considered one of the greatest novels ever written. This latest comes to us from director Joe Wright with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, and stars Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Johnson.
Set in late 19th Century Russia, Anna Karenina (Knightley) travels to Moscow to try to convince her brother Stiva’s (Matthew Macfayden) wife to forgive him for being unfaithful to her. Meanwhile, Stiva’s friend Konstantin (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives to ask Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander) to marry him. However, Anna gets caught up in Moscow’s high society, and ends up falling in love with Count Vronsky (Johnson), scandalising the aristocracy and angering her husband (Law).
The most noticeable and interesting aspect of the film is the production design. Almost the whole film was shot on one soundstage, and it’s been set up to look like a theatre, with the story almost being a play within the film. The scene transitions take place as they would on stage, with people moving bits of the scenery around the characters, who take no notice; with all the self-conscious theatricality going on, it’s remarkable that the fourth wall manages to stay intact throughout. I’m not wholly convinced the theatre setup works, but it looks terrific, is very ambitious and shows a great deal of originality on the part of the production team, so overall I’d say it’s a success. It also allows for some very clever editing, with a scene where Anna’s son plays with a toy train cutting to Anna on the train to Moscow, the train she’s riding represented in camera as the same toy.
If the above sounds a little pretentious, that’s because it is, and I can’t help but wonder how much of this to put down to screenwriter Tom Stoppard. Stoppard is a very talented writer and a very clever person, and he’s also extremely aware of it, but fortunately his worst excesses when it comes to puns and word association are kept to a minimum here, probably because he’s adapting a novel rather than writing an original screenplay. If nothing else, he writes dialogue brilliantly, and as theatrical as the film’s design is, the dialogue never feels staged or clunky. That said, one of the film’s best scenes is completely free from dialogue: when Anna and Vronsky first dance, we are told of them falling passionately in love, and of the aristocracy’s scandalised response to it, completely through movement and music. It’s a fantastic scene, and a great piece of visual storytelling.
Keira Knightley has grown up a lot since being that girl from Pirates of the Caribbean, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she gets nominated for awards for playing Anna Karenina. Considering how unpredictable and changeable the character is, she has an awful lot of conflicting emotions and motivations to work with here, and handles it all very well. Aaron Johnson, having impressed in Nowhere Boy, here continues to prove that he’s much more than just Kick-Ass, and it’s the little details of his performance that really shine through, such as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flaring of his nostrils in annoyance when Anna’s husband arrives at a ball with her. Matthew Macfayden stands out, however, since Stiva is one of the few characters who’s consistently having fun, and he consequently has a lot of fun in the role, chewing scenery with aplomb.
Anna Karenina is a very good film. I can’t help but feel that, given the talent involved, it could have been better “ partly because the deliberate unreality of the whole thing makes it more difficult to sympathise with the characters “ but it’s very well acted and scripted, and while the theatre design isn’t a complete success, it’s creative enough not to bother. Anna Karenina is no doubt destined for some award success.