Happy movies are all alike; every unhappy movie is unhappy in its own way. The particular unhappiness of Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” starring Keira Knightley as the latest manifestation of our favorite Russian heroine, is that no amount of technical flawlessness and conceptual ingenuity can conceal a shallow, uneven representation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel. Everything, from the sumptuous gowns to the unbelievable amounts of snow to the weather-beaten peasants, is right about this “Anna”, except Anna and her story.
The true star of Wright’s film—and indeed what saves it from banality—is the frame through which he chooses to present the aristocratic society of imperial Russia. The film opens with a stage, and as the velvet curtains draw back the camera maneuvers deftly and swiftly through what seems to be the backstage of an elaborate theater production. For the first minutes of the movie the camera seems content to simply weave through the intricate inner workings of a theater, sweeping from one set to the next unashamed—and really, glorying—in showing us the ropes, ladders, and stagehands that create the scenes usually seen. It’s a wonderful conceit, not only in its inherent artistry, but also on its latent commentary of Anna’s society.
All the world’s the stage, and “Anna”’s world brings this both literally and metaphorically to life, with each appearance another opportunity to judge and be judged. Through Wright’s conceit, it is not only us in the cinema who watch Anna and Vronsky’s love dance, scrutinizing their every gesture and smile, but everyone around them. It is no coincidence that aristocrats loved the theater; the play was not the thing, but to see and be seen. Wright’s creative decision to situate the story in a playhouse lends a physical reality to the merciless, claustrophobic world of artifice and judgement. When Levin, the most liberated character in the story, pushes open the doors of a ballroom where he has just been rejected to walk out onto the expansive Russian snow, we breathe out a sigh of relief at being able to escape the confines of that society for the briefest of moments. Anna and her beautiful friends dance and glitter beneath shining chandeliers within paneled walls, walls literally constructed before our eyes by grimy stagehands, the decidedly unbeautiful proletariat of the theater. Rather than weary us with Levin’s endless speeches about the working class and its woes (and wheat!!), Wright incorporates Tolstoy’s political ideology with a clever touch of flare.
Anna, however, has no reprieve from this world, and in her third collaboration with the director Knightley puts forth a convincing portrait of a woman tormented by her own desires. Rather than a tragic martyr of forbidden love as Anna is often portrayed, Knightley’s Anna is more irrational—demanding and jealous of her lover, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and vacillating between acceptance and rejection of her husband, Karenin (Jude Law). It is, of course, perfectly possible, and really, unexceptional, for a woman to leave her husband for passion only to find the subsequent affair unsatisfying, and this is in fact a vision truer to Tolstoy’s original story. But “Anna” falls short in bringing this interpretation to life, leaving its characters underdeveloped and its relationships stale. Wright constructs Anna’s world flawlessly, but Anna herself, along with Vronsky and Karenin, float lifelessly in it. Law, superb in his severity and reserve (and baldness), makes the most of his material but is left with little to do but remain an underdeveloped caricature. We leave the theater not knowing much at all about him, or understanding why Anna and Vronsky fall apart. Perhaps the answer to this is that there is no reason, but others films have done a much superior job of portraying the madness and the frustration of destructive love. A primary example is Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea” (2011), a variation of “Anna Karenina” set in post-war London, in which Rachel Weisz smokes and swoons with the full tragic grandeur of a woman suffering from unreasoning, absolute devotion.
Part of “Anna Karenina”’s weakness is a seeming indecision regarding the movie’s tone. “Anna Karenina” is one of the saddest stories we have ever heard, but in an attempt to stave off melodrama, Wright risks rendering his tale ridiculous. Matthew McFayden is delightful as the bumbling bureaucrat Oblonsky, Anna’s good-hearted but philandering brother, but the choice to have his office workers stamp in unison and stand up rhythmically as if part of a surreal, Kafkaesque song-and-dance routine is not only unexplained, but distracting. The farce does not stop along class lines, as the Russian aristocrats are intentionally silly, chirping gossip at squeaky pitches or dressed in costumes outlandish even for the period, as if Wright did not trust his subtler forms of mockery and throws in a few more jokes for insurance.
Vronsky is perhaps the greatest victim of this tonal imbalance. Any man sporting that mess of curly blonde hair or that moustache could never be taken seriously, and Vronsky is cursed with both. Indeed, Taylor-Johnson’s greatest achievement in the film may be his ability to still look attractive beneath it all; lesser mortals would have sent Anna flying back into Karenin’s arms. If only Vronsky’s unfortunate representation ended there. This Vronsky struts around Moscow and Petersburg, a vain, frivolous dandy whose favorite pastimes are drinking, whoring, and ensuring his uniform stay as white as possible. His pursuit of Anna is depicted as just another one of his endless flirtations, an approach that hits a brick wall in the second half of the film when it wants to stress his tenderness, dedication, and patience with an increasingly irrational Anna.
Vronsky and Anna aside, the supporting characters populate the film vividly, with Kelly Macdonald’s Dolly, Anna’s kind-hearted sister-in-law, particularly touching. Swedish newcomer Alicia Vikander is luminous as Kitty, and her courtship with Levin provides the sweetest moment of the film, a moment of respite in the storm of Anna and Vronsky.
With costumes and sets sure to set Academy hearts aflutter, “Anna Karenina” is a case where the director outshines the star, the craft surpasses the story. For an original use of staging, luminous cinematography, and a visit to the gilded cage of imperial Russia, go to the movie theater. For Anna Karenina, the library.
“Anna Karenina” has been released into UK theaters. It will go into limited release in the U.S. on November 16.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 4 stars