“Sin has its consequences” Karenin (Jude Law) tell his wife Anna (Keira Knightley), in the umpteenth adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. This one, though, directed by Joe Wright and written by Tom Stoppard, is different. I didn’t find it better than the 1948 version with Vivien Leigh (still haven’t seen the Greta Garbo version), but it certainly gets points for style.
Wright has set the film inside a theater, and highlights the artificiality of the action. Characters step through a door and go from palace to skid row. Drops fly in and out, and though there are scenes that are shot outside, others are purposely made theatrical, such a horse race and a train station.
I’m not sure this makes any grand point, but it is beautiful to look at. The production design by Sarah Greenwood is so amazing to behold, and the costumes by Jacqueline Durran are stunning. The sumptuousness of the film helps disguise some of the story problems.
The script is extremely faithful to the novel, set in imperial Russia in the 1870s among the nobility, but also incredibly economical. Stoppard is quite clever in boiling down concepts that may take fifty pages of a book into just a few seconds of film. For example, the opening, in which Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, is caught dallying with his children’s governess, is expressed in a shot of his wife (Kelly Macdonald) finding a love note.
The novel is huge, so a two-hour adaptation has to get rid of a lot of fat. This is where the problem is in any adaptation of this book. The juicy story is Anna falling in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leaving her husband, and creating a scandal. The parallel plot involves Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner, and his love for Kitty (Alica Vikander). Levin’s love for Kitty is contrasted with Vronsky’s for Anna as the adult version of love–several times in the book and film romantic love is pooh-poohed as something being horribly out-dated. It’s sort of a Goofus and Gallant interpretation of love.
But Levin’s story is far less interesting, so he gets the short end of the stick. So we get the soap opera of the cuckolded husband, and there lies the problem: Anna and Vronsky are horribly selfish characters. In this film, Karenin is the sympathetic character (not true in the 1948 film, where Ralph Richardson plays him as an ogre). At one point, after Law understands the full nature of Anna’s betrayal, he says “What did I do to deserve this?” Good question.
Of course, Law plays Karenin as a humorless prig, a government minister who seems to have never let his thinning hair down. Vronsky, as played by Taylor-Johnson, looks like a refugee from a boy band (I found him far too pretty and bland for the role). But though Knightey and Taylor-Johnson are allowed some steamy scenes that fall just short of nudity, I never felt any chemistry between them.
The other actors are fine. Knightley is no Vivien Leigh, but she has some nice moments, such as when she goes to the theater and is snubbed for being an adulteress. Matthew Macfadyen plays Oblonsky as if he had studied the films of Kevin Kline (he would have made a good Vronsky–after all, he was Darby to Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice) and Vikander makes a suitably angelic Kitty.
I do give Anna Karenina a thumbs up, though. Whenever the story lags, the world of the film is so fascinating that it carried me to the next scene. Other well-worn classics might benefit from a similar treatment.
My grade for Anna Karenina: B-.