Joe Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ starring Keira Knightly in the title role takes the laborious Tolstoy novel written between 1873 and 1877 and transforms it into a magical narrative through inventive story telling devices. It opens November 16 in San Francisco.
There hasn’t been an ‘Anna Karenina’ quite like this before. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard employs scene changes within theatre spaces, galleys, window frames and out of doors, in a style which Wright calls ‘fluid linearity’. The two-hour film has a heavenly scent to it despite the melancholic and dark plot – the story of a late 19th century Russian woman who betrays her husband Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), twenty years her senior. Anna’s surname is the feminine form of her husband’s, and she is an appendage of this public statesman who has rights to their son. Inevitably, she falls for the younger Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), which makes her an outcast in society, drives her insane and eventually leads to her death. As the most famous line of the novel reads, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ is not unlike mid-19th century novels that dealt with adultery such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). In 2012 it is still an amazing spectacle on gender differences at a time when peasant Russia was on the verge of a socialist transformation of the means of production that would topple the church and aristocracy. This would also concern the emancipation of women and a growing movement that criticized marriage and advocated simple divorces and sexual freedom. Anna Karenina chronicles the confines for women in Russian society before what was to come.
Why would the subject interest us today? No one seems well matched in the story, and everyone wants someone they can’t have. Yet, adultery fascinates. It is a force of nature which breaks the unnatural rules of society and threatens the private ownership of women in marriage. Tolstoy shows that men enjoyed a freedom denied women and were ostracized in different ways. As late as 1998 a US president was impeached for it and just this week a US military general was forced to resign. But while men are wrestled from power as a consequence of adultery, it is a more of a life altering game changer for the women who cheat. Although Anna Karenina could have left her husband to marry her lover, as she loses her position in society an understandable masochism sinks in that leads to her destruction. Count Vronsky can roam around and enjoy his privileges, whereas Anna is stigmatized. The themes of the film fluctuate between forgiveness and vengeance. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay”, are the thoughts of Count Karenin. For the spectator of today, there is only forgiveness for Anna Karenina.
One of the narrative symbols that propels the films are the wheels of a train – powerful, thick black cylinders that rotate and later crush the body of a wheel turner at the train station in the beginning of the film. This foreshadowing of the man, whose blackened face is foreboding and ominous, startles Anna Karenina, which we later will come to understand.
Years ago ‘Anna Karenina’ would be made with hundreds of extras, elaborate sets, costumes and props but Wright uses simple, elegant and clever means to tell the story. One reason the film gels so well is that each scene magnificently blends into the next. Together they resemble someone walking on the plank of a scaffold that smoothly joins with another plank. The film’s construction also has the momentum of a centrifuge, which tightens with the spasms of the plot. Since Anna Karenina suffers from a “female malady”, it has a feminine structure. Even love scenes are filmed in circuitous angles.
Joe Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ is true cinema – the cinematography, editing, set design, costume and makeup, sound and misé en scene (composition of the frame) create something new. The film does not chronicle the linearity of the novel – it selects certain essences and elaborates on them in a poetic form that is both innovative and appreciative.
It is not easy to create cinema out of an eight-part novel from another time period but Joe Wright (‘Hanna’, 2011, ‘Atonement ‘2007, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, 2005) has succeeded in assembling an excellent ensemble cast and talented crew to make the best ‘Anna Karenina” to date. Keira Knightly has been in three of his films.
There have been other ‘Karenina’ productions including the 1927 silent film ‘Love’ with Greta Garbo in the lead (with an American ‘happy ending’), however the 2012 edition of the 19th century novel is perhaps the best of all. If it is made as a film again, ‘Anna Karenina’ can never return to the previous format of staging the novel’s episodic plot development. Future productions will have to contribute something new beyond the ambitious efforts of this film.
Keira Knightly at 27 has grown up and her delightful smile and powerful demeanor is the same we have seen in previous films. Now her talents are for ‘Anna Karenina’. In her wings is the promising young Swedish actor Alicia Vikander (‘A Royal Affair’, Denmark 2012), who plays “the younger” (age 24) Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya. Originally enraptured with Count Vronsky too, she learns the hard way that there are other virtues than good looks and affluence. She takes a second look at the wooden suitor and landowner Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). It is easy to empathize with him when he is rejected, because he believes in love not title so much and as such the future Russia. Levin tries to introduce new farming techniques to the peasants in his region and can be seen with a scythe cutting down his fields with the workers. Here it is understood that Tolstoy was sympathetic with how ill at ease Levin felt in aristocratic settings. There are surprises in Levin’s relationship with Kitty that offset the luxurious maladies of the aristocracy in a well-treated parallel story. However, it is still a tale of marriage and motherhood, though much less distressing than the fate of Anna Karenina.