In Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard assume that the viewer has at least a passing familiarity with Leo Tolstoy’s novel and with Russian literature. For those who do, this latest retelling of the doomed Anna (Keira Knightley, as alarmingly assertive as ever), her lover Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, wisely playing the dashing cavalry officer as a callow pretty boy) and her stiff-necked husband Karenin (Jude Law, making the man more than a cardboard villain) is a bracing and stimulating experience. But given today’s movie audiences, Wright and Stoppard’s assumption may have been reckless. At the press screening I attended, at least one person in the small audience seemed to resent the effort it took to follow the story and to keep all those Russian names straight.
In a nutshell—Russian-lit majors may skip this paragraph—the story deals with Anna, whose marriage to a staid bureaucrat is comfortable but passionless. When she is pursued by the impetuous Vronsky, she at first resists, but finally surrenders to him, finding passion beyond her dreams, but at the cost of ostracism, possessive jealousy, spiraling despair and suicide. The affair of Vronsky and Anna is contrasted with two parallel stories: First, the philandering of Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), despite his love for his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald); and second, Dolly’s younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), whose infatuation with Vronsky nearly costs her the love of the shy and awkward Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). So much for the plot; as for the Russian names, you’re on your own.
In his last adaption of 19th-century literature, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice (also with Knightley and Macfadyen), Joe Wright treated Jane Austen’s book with stark, even merciless realism. The Bennet family’s home was spare and slightly seedy, with pigs and chickens having the run of the house; clothes were often rumpled and coarse; when people got caught in the rain, they became drenched and bedraggled. Austen might well have recognized it, but it was a cold dose of reality to those accustomed to the Masterpiece Theatre brand of Regency romance.
For Anna Karenina, Wright and Stoppard go to the opposite extreme, stylizing the production to a fare-thee-well. The movie opens in an ornate theater, elegantly appointed but clearly having seen better days. The curtain announces the title, then rises to reveal another curtain saying “Imperial Russia, 1874.” That curtain rises, and the action begins, ostensibly in Oblonsky’s office—but, in fact, we’re still in that theater.
It’s a bold stroke, risking confusion in the audience, and it was probably the inspiration of master playwright Stoppard, never one to spoon-feed an audience; you either stay with him, or you get left hopelessly behind. Almost the entire movie takes place in this handsome, slightly run-down theater—a setting clear to us but invisible to the characters. When they walk the bustling streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg, we see that they’re actually negotiating the catwalks in the fly space high above the stage. Even the famous steeplechase scene takes place there, the spectators packing the dress circle as the horses gallop across the stage.
Significantly, the movie ventures outdoors only in visits to Levin’s country estate. The change underlines Levin’s connection to the land and the sharp contrast with the rigid artificiality of life in the cities, where everybody has their designated role and is expected to play it as assigned. Everything in this high society is strictly choreographed, from the paper shuffling of the clerks in Oblonsky’s office to the dances at the ball where Vronsky slowly but surely seduces Anna away from conventional “decency.”
Again, all this assumes a basic familiarity with the original material. Wright and Stoppard expect us to get it, not to scratch our heads and wonder why the hell they’re running a horse race in a theater. If you can make that leap, their boldness pays off handsomely.
But if not, or if you just can’t get around those Russian names, you might knock this review’s rating down a notch or two.