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Non-Review Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

All the world is a stage, literally for Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. Anna Karenina is visually stunning, and perfectly put together, doing a workman-like job of condensing Tolstoy’s 800-page doorstopper into a film running justover two hours. The wonderfully inventive idea of staging the film entirely in a theatre – from the foyer to the rafters to the stage itself – gives Wright the opportunity to showcase his talent as one of the finest working directors today. Tom Stoppard’s scripts is dripping with wit and does an excellent job providing digestible chunks of Tolstoy’s epic and a fair few pithy one-liners. Unfortunately, this is countered by the fact that the film never feels like it’s quite enough, and in particular the fact that its central figure feels like a shadow cast against a back wall rather than a three-dimensional character.

Save the last dance…

To be fair, the story of Anna Karenina is what it is. Those expecting an entirely faithful adaptation, or even one that has the same breadth as its source material would be better suited to look elsewhere. Tolstoy’s cross-section of Russian society is too vast and large to fit inside a film with a manageable length, though Stoppard and Wright do a commendable – if not exceptional – job of hitting on all the key ideas. However, the appeal of this version of Anna Karenina is undoubtedly the combination of a truly lavish production design and Wright’s wonderful eye for movement.

Wright has proven himself a very diverse director, but one with a gift for kinetic action. The most memorable sequence of the impressive Atonement was a one-shot take that took us through a seaside camp, while Hannademonstrated that the director could keep pace with the best action directors of the moment without missing a character beat. Here, there’s a constant sense of movement as Wright’s sets come together and fall apart with all the majesty and technique of a ballet.

Shippin’ out for Petrograd…

Using a theatre as the set, almost everything is constructed within the confines of the building. It sounds like a gimmick, and – to be fair – it is, but it’s one executed exceptionally well. The rafters are converted into lower-class sleeping quarters, while the foyer doubles for the entrance to Karenina’s home. The stage itself can be anything from a race-course to a sitting room, and there are a flurry of attendants on stand-by to convert the sets as the actors move between them. There are cuts of course, but Wright impresses with some beautifully staged shots as offices give way to restaurants that give way to streets to stately homes. There’s a wonderful energy and vitality to the staging that gives the movie a fair bit of energy.

Indeed, framing the story in such a manner also allows both Stoppard and Wright to take several shortcuts that fluidly establish character and mood. Given that we aren’t being convinced that any of this is “real”, there’s a theatrical flourish to everything. It feels hyper-real, like a trip to Disneyland, or into a dream. So character actions aren’t logical so much as they are efficient illustrations. Anna’s husband, Karenin, is shown handing sheets of paper work to his assistant, who just hands them back – an illustration of how petty his bureaucratic responsibilities are. Office works stamp their documents in time to the wonderful score, and the actors almost seem to dance.

All fur love?

Of course, it also fits thematically. Tolstoy’s contempt for the social classes is palpable, where everything seems to be theatre. Everybody is performing. Refusing to visit Anna, one of her old friends concedes that she would visit with the title character had she merely broken the law, but Anna did something much more serious. “She broke the rules.” It’s a farce, all of it. Nobody is who they say they are, they are just actors prancing around on a stage trying to convince the world that they are something other than what they claim to be.

As a result, it’s only Levin’s world – his family’s agricultural land – that seems truly real. Other characters visit the countryside, but it’s shot whited out or on an obvious staged background, but Levin’s family farm is very clearly a real place, shot on location. Outside the cities and the social circles, free from the judgment of peers and the ridiculous social dance that people are forced to go through, there’s something substantial out there.

Building blocks for a relationship…

It feels appropriate. Tolstoy himself would concede that he identified most strongly with Levin, with the later chapters of the novel serving as something of a pamphlet on Tolstoy’s philosophy. Tolstoy also, famously, hated the theatre, so it feels right that the author’s avatar would be the one to spend the most time outside of it and to harbour the most contempt for it. Indeed, although the theatre metaphor works for a lot of the more obvious reasons stated above, I wouldn’t be surprised if Wright and Stoppard grounded the play in the theatre as a sort of an in-joke.

Either way, Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Katie Spencer’s set design are both absolutely stunning and a constant joy to behold. Anna Kareninamight be the best-looking film so far this year, which is really saying something about the quality of the work. The rest of the production is similarly top-notch, with Dario Marianelli’s score deserving special mention. It’s perfectly set to the action, stately and impressive without being overwhelming or intrusive.

He’s got the Law on his side!

However, if you get past the phenomenal production design, there are problems. The most obvious is the central character, Anna herself. We’re never supposed to fully sympathise with Anna. She’s selfish, manipulative and short-sighted. However, the movie makes it impossible to really feel any sense of pity for the woman. We’re supposed to be appalled at how society responds to her, shunning her for making decisions that the group don’t collectively approve of, but the movie reduces Anna to little more than a crazy cat lady stereotype.

In fact, it seems almost surprising that everybody puts up with her for so long – it’s one thing to want to see your son on his birthday, but presenting your lover with ultimatums over the day you leave Moscow makes you seem psychotic. It seems like an act of self-preservation to stay away from her. I know I wouldn’t want to be left in a room alone with her. Nabokov would famously spoil the ending of the novel for his students, so that they would appreciate the work on its own terms. I won’t do that here, but there are moments where I suspected that Stoppard might take a bit of a left-turn with the ending, if only because Anna seems almost aggressively sociopathic at times.

To dine for…

Indeed, Anna is so unsympathetic that her passive-aggressive emotionally-cold husband, Karenin, comes out of the film looking like a stand-up fellow. We wonder why he puts up with her selfish nonsense for so long. He’s not an especially pleasant individual, but he seems like a saint in comparison. I suspect this is a result of ruthlessly condensing the novel, like the way that Levin seems curiously disconnected from the rest of the narrative. There’s no room for all the real characters, so we end up with relatively simplistic stand-ins, with each character reduced to their base essence.

Keira Knightley actually is fairly decent in the title role, although the last half of the film does her no favours. Jude Law and Domhnall Gleeson both make the best of small roles. Matthew Macfadyen steals the show as the rampaging id, Oblonsky. He gets many of the best lines, and Macfadyen really adores the opportunity to ham it up. I’m genuinely surprised the actor hasn’t achieved a higher profile in the years since he first started appearing on the big screen.

Levin let die?

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is perhaps the sole miscast actor, as he seems much too young to make a convincing romantic lead. I know that the central romance is intended to be subversive and masks the dysfunction of the two central characters, but it doesn’t work if the couple don’t appear – on the surface – to be ideally matched. Vronsky seems much too juvenile throughout the film, with Taylor-Johnson’s moustache making him look like he’s just come through puberty. Now Macfadyen, he knows how to wear a moustache. Most of the cast are effectively used, even if many are playing little more than archetypes.

That’s not to suggest that Tom Stoppard’s script is weak. It just suffers from the fact that it had to put the source novel through a blender and then a compactor to get a film that ran to two hours. Stoppard’s dialogue sparkles and there’s an abundance of witty remarks to be found. My favourite comes as Karenin breaks the news to Oblonsky that he is divorcing Anna. Oblonsky invites him to dine, forcing Karenin to restate his point. Oblonsky responds, “Divorce is one thing. Dinner is another.”There’s a number of witty retorts throughout, and it’s a pleasure to watch.

Yeah, she wants to dance with somebody…

And, to be fair, there are a number of wonderfully affecting scenes.Anything featuring Domhnall Gleeson works especially well, including a nice “flirty” scene where his love finds herself physically unable to articulate her emotions, expressing herself through the handy letter-blocks they are playing with. Wright also knows how to frame a shot, and he can certainly evoke a great deal of sympathy for most of his cast at particular moments through use of music, lighting and set cues.

Anna Karenina is an enjoyable film, if it’s never quite substantial enough to be entirely satisfying. It all feels a little superficial, with an exquisitely crafted exterior that engages the viewer enough to overlook some of the film’s more substantial flaws. It looks absolutely fabulous, but there’s a sense that there’s not as much going on underneath that beautiful outer shell to make it a genuine classic.

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6 Responses

  1. I find most Joe Wright movies a little superficial. They’re always impressively made, but the actual story underneath never seems substantially enough to warrant the filmmaking virtuosity. I find him similar to Alfonso Cuaron in that respect.

    • I actually like the director’s visual flourishes, although I’m quite partial to directors with distinctive visual styles. That said, I think that Wright has yet to meet the perfect script for his style though, and I think Hanna worked best because it was a competent script without too many hang-ups. (I really liked Atonement, but the script is a mess, and the script here feels like somebody shredded a novel and tried to cellotape it back together.)

  2. I had friends go and see this and they said similar sorts of things – the visuals were stunning but it would never make the shelves as a true classic.

  3. To digress somewhat, on rereading Anna in Lowry’s edition in the 1990’s it seemed obvious to me that Anna became a morphine addict. We always knew she took morphine, but it was glossed over. By the time the drug culture was mainstream it became obvious that she became an addict, much like the mother in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. So yes she became crazed and irrational, so I am glad to see her portrayed that way.

    • Thanks for the insight. But I just don’t get the sense, watching the film, that there’s any depth to her – I cans ee the movie trying to set up a small measure of sympathy for her, but there isn’t enough substance to make me care. (Not, of course, that Wright is trying to off-set her selfish and self-centred character, but the film seems to suggest we should feel bad for Anna – and, watching it, I know I should feel bad for her in a tiny way – but I don’t.) I’m very curious to hear what you make of the film?

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