ANNA KARENINA. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Olivia Williams, Matthew Macfadyen, and Kelly Macdonald. Directed by Joe Wright. Rated M (Mature themes, sex scenes and brief gore). 130 min.
Set in Imperial Russia in the late nineteenth century, this British film is adapted by Tom Stoppard from Leo Tolstoy's 1877 novel of the same name. The movie depicts the tragedy of an aristocrat, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), who is married to Karenin, a man of importance (Jude Law), and who has a notorious affair with a handsome cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Several versions of Anna Karenina have appeared on the cinema and television screens, the most famous of which is Greta Garbo's depiction of Anna Karenina in 1935, and Vivien Leigh's version of Anna in the 1948 film of the same name.
An unfaithful Stefan Oblansky (Matthew Macfadyen) asks his sister, Anna, to travel to Moscow to help him repair a rift with his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), about his errant ways. Anna's companion on the train down is the mother of Count Vronsky, who is on the station to meet her as the train arrives. Vronsky and Anna are attracted immediately to each other, and become lovers. Anna's husband, Karenin, succumbs to the suspicions of those around him, and confirms his doubts, when Anna cries out in anguish after Vronsky falls in a horse race. Following the accident, Karenin tells his wife on the way home that she has behaved improperly in public, and people have noticed.
When Anna eventually leaves Karenin to live with Vronsky, society in Moscow and St. Petersburg becomes scornful of her behaviour and shuns her. In desperation, Anna is torn between the comfortable and ordered life she has with Karenin, who irritates her by his conformity, and her love for Vronsky, who passionately excites her but who will take her from her beloved son. Overcome with distress, conflict, and doubts of Vronsky's continuing affection, she suicides by throwing herself under an approaching train.
This is a very different film version to anything that has gone before, and it retells the story of Anna Karenina in a bold way. It is the most stylised version produced to date. The film starts off as a play with actors on a stage in a run-down Russian theatre, and uses the theatre, its stage, its auditorium, and its footlights throughout the film. Tiny models become real trains. Groups suddenly move into musical-mode. Characters play out their roles on the stage and step into real life, that is just beyond the ageing theatre's glowing footlights.
The conceit established by the film's devices distracts at first from the story, but the movie gradually builds up emotional force by the intensity of the acting. The variety of emotions displayed by the main players is complex and reflects the individuality of character that Tolstoy has created. Anna, for instance, loves Vronsky passionately, but admires her husband and is scornful of him at the same time. Anna's betrayal revolts Karenin, but he takes her back. For all of the characters in the film, and in Tolstoy's story, their world is never emotionally simple.
In adopting artificial ways of showing what is happening, the director of the movie, Joe Wright, is wanting to comment on the kind of society that has produced Anna and the permanence of emotions surviving the past, as well as showing the conflict and inconsistencies that exist among Tolstoy's characters. The conceit works, but only to a point. Tolstoy's tale is essentially a tragedy of people trapped by their own decisions and the terrible predicaments they make for themselves.
The movie takes a morally complex story and treats it stylistically. Its artifice creates some incredibly beautiful scenes, such as the sea of green grass growing throughout the Russian theatre, and the director's freezing of people as Anna and her lover move among them. But what makes for fascinating compositions manages ultimately to compress the human element of the drama. For the part of a woman of sensual desire, Kiera Knightley embraces her role with fervour, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson always looks suitably deserving of her passion, but the film's theatre-conceit runs the risk of overwhelming them both.
This is a very interesting depiction of "Anna Karenina" that is well worth seeing for its originality, and its differences. One might be distracted at times from the power of the drama of Tolstoy's classic novel, but the film's sumptuous costuming and elaborate framing of set designs, especially, are feasts for the eyes.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out 14th February 2013.