Whenever a classic novel is adapted to the screen, it brings with it tremendous expectation and a lot of history. So it takes a lot of guts to tackle an adaptation of what is generally regarded as the greatest novel ever written - one that has been imitated, discussed and beloved for over a hundred years. British director Joe Wright isn’t unfamiliar with this kind of pressure, debuting with his magnificent ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2005), and following that with his masterpiece ‘Atonement’ (2007). Both films demonstrated a mature and dynamic handling of difficult material and an inventive and beautiful visual style, and were excellent preparation for this, his greatest challenge yet. Returning to the world of adaptation, Wright tackles head-on the behemoth of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, an 800-page foundation stone of Russian and Western literature. The biggest surprise, though, is just how Joe Wright chooses to solve it.
Tolstoy’s great work places us at the height of Russian aristocracy at the end of the 1800s, before revolution rips it apart, and follows two protagonists, each pursuing their own ideas of love. One is Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a young landowner of high morals and strong beliefs, who has fallen for Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful and impressionable young woman of royalty. The other is Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the wife of beloved diplomat Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). Stuck in a respectable marriage with a caring but distant man, she begins an illicit affair with a handsome young officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), which eventually threatens to dismantle not just her marriage, but her place within this world of manners and rules.
From the moment it begins, Wright’s film defies any expectations you might have about his approach to this adaptation. In a stroke of absolute brilliance, he choses to place the action that occurs in the high society of Moscow and St Petersburg, within an old Russian theatre, where bedrooms, restaurants, ice rinks, train stations are all sets flown in or erected within the theatrical space. Extras change costumes before our eyes, landscapes and crowds are painted on beautiful impressionist backdrops, even the performances brim with choreographed theatricality where every moving body in space is perfectly in sync with all those around them. It’s a striking visual language, brimming with possibility and electricity, as well as a strong comment on the society our characters exist in. Imperial Russian society is nothing but a grand performance, where every soul must play their part, and it is when someone moves against the tide of that performance that the production begins to come undone. It also creates a bubble, a defined universe for these rules and customs to exist in, and when a character leaves this bubble, like Levin returning to his country home, the doors of the theatre burst open onto the untamed Russian landscape, a door to escape through that’s always there, always a possibility, but a dangerous path to take nonetheless.
Choosing such a strong visual language also makes adapting the novel much easier for screenwriter and acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, filling in the details on Russian societies and customs and allowing more room for character development within its surprisingly short 130 minute running time. The dialogue crackles with such indelible wit and intelligence, the playful cynicism of Tolstoy with a bit of a Chekhovian snap. It’s as if the screenplay had fallen through a gap in time from the late 1800s, ready for Wright to shoot. The production design is a glorious, startling vision of Imperial Russia through the lens of 19th century theatre, Wright’s concept allowing production designer Sarah Greenwood to be more inventive and playful than a traditional costume drama might have allowed. Dario Marianelli’s score is also a treat, a wonderful homage to the romanticism of the music of Tchaikovsky as well as the traditional folk sounds of Russia itself.
Wright has always had his pick of talented actors, and ‘Anna Karenina’ is no exception. Once again, he finds something special in Knightley, who creates a real danger in Anna, both in her flirtations and her growing mental instability. This acts as a perfect counterpoint to the steely, quiet resolve of Jude Law, who finds a way to make Karenin frightening, sympathetic and distant all at once. Taylor-Johnson strides across the scene with intoxicating arrogance and vivacity, making Vronsky everything Karenin isn’t. His chemistry with Knightly is surprisingly dangerous, and where we might expect this to be an affair built on love, these two actors, along with their director, instead choose to present it as one built on lust. There is a stirring physicality and sexuality to every scene they have together, as if anything were about to happen between these two people. Gleeson is absolutely fantastic as Levin, the moral counterpoint to the other men in the film, a good soul who holds to his beliefs, and Gleeson has a wonderful tenderness. And while the entire supporting cast are worth talking about, special mention has to go to Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s philandering brother Oblonsky, the terrific comic heart of the story, a buffoon completely oblivious to his many despicable faults.
From the moment it begins, Wright’s film defies any expectations you might have about his approach to this adaptation.
As the affair and the film progress, the playful theatricality Wright sets up at the start begins to slide, and the film makes a much darker tonal shift. The heated foreplay of the affair starts to fade, and Anna is left to deal with the practicalities and consequences of her actions. The truth is, ‘Anna Karenina’ isn’t a sweeping romance like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Atonement’. What Tolstoy gives us, and subsequently Wright and Stoppard, is a story about love rather than a love story; something that looks at the emotion as an abstract concept, and offers a collection of characters through which to explore it. It’s a far more cynical and intellectual exercise, and while some might be disappointed in the surprising lack of romance in the film, those who go with the film will find something just as rewarding and just as enlightening, so that the devastating finale is as much a meditative moment as it is an emotionally powerful one.
What Joe Wright and his team have attempted with ‘Anna Karenina’ is something truly ambitious, the kind of magic trick we once might have expected from Ingmar Bergman or Ferderico Fellini, and one that has certainly payed off. This is such a distinct, exciting and audacious film, as emotionally satisfying as it is stylistically thrilling, and further proof that Wright is one of the finest British directors today, and possibly ever. It’s the kind of film that really does need to be seen to be believed. An instant and indelible classic.