Losing Its Purpose, by Rita Cannon
How fun should an adaptation of Anna Karenina be? At the beginning, it seems like Joe Wright’s gorgeous new version of the classic Russian novel will be the funnest one yet. The plot is propelled almost entirely by incidences of adultery and death, so that’s not really saying much. But if you’re going to tell a story that’s already been committed to film eleven times, you’d better put your own artistic stamp on it, and Wright wastes no time in doing that. Unfortunately, when his daringly theatrical touches start to fade, so does the film’s reason for being.
Keira Knightley, Wright’s habitual leading lady, plays Anna, a wife and mother firmly ensconced in the aristocracy of czarist Russia. She seems reasonably happy with her husband Karenin (Jude Law), who is stoic but kind, and she loves their young son deeply. Her home life seems especially pleasant when contrasted with that of Anna’s brother Oblonsky (a delightful Matthew Macfadyen), who’s been screwing around on his wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald), and now wants Anna to come visit them in Moscow and convince Dolly not to divorce him. It’s on her way to Moscow that Anna meets the handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and soon begins her own torrid affair, the fallout from which is greater than she ever expected.
Wright’s big artistic choice is to set the majority of the film’s action in a theater – Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the train Anna uses to travel between them are all housed in this space, represented with beautiful sets and painted backdrops that are moved around by stagehands. It’s an unsubtle but effective metaphor for the performative nature of Anna and her contemporaries’ lives, where keeping up appearances comes before all else. It also distances the film from the details of its literary source material and puts it more in the realm of myth and archetypes – it becomes less about the social conventions of Russia in the 1870s, and more about big ideas like love, fate, and death. This probably seems like sacrilege to a Tolstoy purist, but if you’re like me and have always been daunted by the scope and complexity of many Russian novels, it comes as a bit of relief.
Speaking of scope, Anna Karenina is based on a novel of over 800 pages, but clocks in at 130 minutes onscreen. It’s extremely pared down, and certain plotlines suffer for it. I’m thinking in particular of Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and her suitor Levin (Domhnall Gleason), whose romance is considered by many to be one of the greatest in literature, but is here reduced to a straight-faced version of the Big Misunderstanding that comes in the third act of most romantic comedies. The strained marriage of Dolly and Oblonsky would seem more fertile ground for a nuanced examination of the limits of love, but they receive far less screen time than the comparatively callow and boring Kitty and Levin.
While the unconventional staging is what initially pulls us into the film, it necessarily becomes less pronounced as the film progresses. A Moulin Rouge-caliber choreographed number set in Oblonsky’s office is a fun way to start this movie, but considering the tragic spiral that Anna’s life ends up in, it would seem tacky to have something so heightened anywhere past the second act mark. Wright knows this, and so the visuals become starker and less whimsical the closer we get to the film’s conclusion. Unfortunately, it’s also at this point that one realizes how central those visuals are to the enjoyment of the film. When they take a backseat to the final beats of the story, it becomes apparent how well-worn those beats actually are, and draws attention to the distance Wright has put between us and the characters. This bracing take on a classic story is undeniably interesting, unique, and worth seeing, but much like Anna herself, it starts a lot stronger than it ends.
You’ve really articulated what is at the heart of this film. The visual choices do decrease as the film runs on, and those choices are most interesting. It is far too expansive of a story to do justice in 2 hours and 9 minutes. An interesting attempt though.