When a film takes the subtext of its source material and makes it text the result will often blunt the final product, making what had been a nuanced narrative aspect a stultifying point of banal exposition. The risk of this is especially true in the adaptation of a novel, because an author can create omniscient narration outside of the plot to help accentuate a given point, while a movie would require exposition. In general, this makes cerebral or socially conscious novels insanely difficult to adapt faithfully and intelligently because characters have to baldly state the meaning of the story (I’m looking at you, Cloud Atlas).
The genius of your tale is to take one of the subtle, abstract ideas at the heart of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal novel – that society creates an environment hostile to certain types of love and life leading to eventual tragedy for those who rebel – and uses that idea to create a concrete environment for your story to play out within. Save for a few scenes set in the real world for thematic impact, the entirety of your story plays out within an abandoned theater house, a stroke of production design both evocative in aspect and brilliant in execution. By drawing outsized attention to the way in which 19th century Russian society acted as a stage on which all would be viewed and judged, you can tone down the courtly intrigue that took up some large passages of the book, expanding the drama of certain scenes into high operatic excess while never allowing the inherent melodrama to drown out an otherwise grounded take on the material. You create a full-tilt corporeal realization of a sociological idea, and it works marvelously as the arena of a very personal story.
Anna Karenina is headed to Moscow to help her brother Stiva reunite with his wife Dolly after he has a dalliance with their children’s governess. There, she meets Count Vronsky, a dashing, rich young cavalry officer who had previously set his sights on Dolly’s younger sister Kitty, who had likewise been eyed as a potential wife by Stiva’s lifelong friend Levin. Vronsky and Anna share an immediate connection that severs his interest in Kitty, who had already rebuffed Levin in his favor. Anna returns to St. Petersburg and is pursued by Vronsky, despite the fact that Anna is married to an important government official, Alexy Karenin.
This all may sound very complex and dry, considering the amount of connections and the apparently flighty emotions involved, but luckily every mechanism in your complex narrative is tightly calibrated to maximum effect. Of course there is your use of the theater space to illuminate each character’s place within society and the way in which they are being viewed at a given time. This is an integral part to your success, but far from the sole pillar on which you stand.
Equally as important to imparting all of this story and thematic information to the audience is the adaptation by Tom Stoppard. We live in a world where single books are now being broker into ever more numbers of films, with The Hobbit clocking in at three full length films. That an 800 page book filled to the brim with actual plot and character development could be pared down to a single two hour film seems almost impossible now. Yet Stoppard, while admittedly excising some of my favorite parts from the novel, is able to get to the bleeding heart of your source material, taking some of the best lines and moments and distilling them to their very essence to deliver a concise, faithful screenplay.
Not only that, but you have the actors necessary to take this distillation of text and action and still imbue it with the human core that is essential to its success. Kiera Knightley effectively manages Anna’s transition from an untroubled and faithful mother with a clear conscience into a woman wracked by grief and anxiety over her growing feelings for another man. She manages the giddy elation of the chaste affair and their transition into morbid horror and defiant pride as word of her consummated relationship slips out into the public. She brings Anna’s confused and tortured emotional liberation to life, and is even more powerful in Anna’s slow slide into societal and moral oblivion.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson likewise creates a more sympathetic Vronsky than I would have expected, but still retains the cavalier ignorance to Anna’s true plight that makes his actions all the more hurtful. Domhnail Gleeson as Levin brings forth all of the moral anxiety and spiritual turmoil that one would hope for, and his romance with Kitty is just as touching and hopelessly all-consuming as any fan of the novel could hope for. His raw emotional reaction and self-effacement is well modulated and expertly delivered. He is challenged for top performer in your story only by Jude Law as the stoic but magnanimous and loving Alexy Karenin. Of all the characters who could be troubled by cloudy motives or rigid moralism, Karenin was the most at risk of coming off as a one-dimensional flunky, but Law plays his wounded spirit not as a symptom of ego, but of immense empathy for his wayward wife.
All of these elements are brought together through the bold and esoteric direction of Joe Wright, who is proving once again to be a master of taking a pat story and turning it into something much more than one would expect through interesting stylistic choices. The manner in which extras react and respond to the actions of the principles, the choreography of the camera through the space and the choreography of the transitions of the space itself are spellbinding. There is meaning in these things, yes, but there is also sheer entertainment in watching it all play out, and that adds the final spice that makes this visual adaptation so enthralling.
Add onto all of this the best score in any movie I have heard this year, and what else is there to say? I would encourage anyone with the time and the intellectual and the humanist curiosity to read “Anna Karenina” in book form. It is a story and a work of art that will change your life. Likewise, I would tell anyone with any appreciation for cinema in general and anyone looking for concise, meaningful, successful adaptations in particular to seek you, Anna Karenina, as a shining example of what to do when tackling a seemingly insurmountable formal and narrative classic.
Looking forward to a long, lasting relationship,
Brian J. Roan