UK, 2012, 129 minutes, Colour.
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor- Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Michelle Dockery, Shirley Henderson.
Directed by Joe Wright.
Perhaps not the most obvious word to use in connection with Anna Karenina. After all, Tolstoy’s novel has vast scope, life in Moscow and St Petersburg as well as in the Russian countryside, aristocratic classes, the military, the peasants. There have been several film versions of Anna Karenina, plenty of interpretation and background and images of Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Jacqueline Bissett, Sophie Marceau.
But, director Joe Wright, with a screenplay by playwright Tom Stoppard, has decided to keep his treatment indoors, in fact, within a complex theatre, characters moving in and out of rooms, wings, the audience supplying the links and recognising locations. The film does go outside for the scenes of the harvest and Levin working with the peasants, a contrast to the artificial world of the aristocrats.
The audience has to accept this instantly, with the curtain literally rising. If not, no hope for this version.
Costumes and décor are more than elegant, so is the 19th century like orchestrated score. Visually, it is something of a feast.
That means, when we accept the style, we concentrate on the performances and the issues. Kiera Knightly is a younger Anna, not realising how much she is imprisoned in a formal, arranged marriage, visiting Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to ask her to forgive her comically eye-roving husband, Stephen (Matthew McFadyen? giving a funny and striking performance). But, Anna’s eye strays. She is attracted to a young officer, Count Vronsky, flattered by his attentions and gradually becoming aware of her feelings. She is more attracted to Vronsky than most of the audience will be. Aaron Taylor Johnson is a bit vapid, infatuated, then tormented, but not the kind of man that we imagine Anna would be attracted to.
It is Jude Law as the intensely serious and upright Karenin who gives the impressive performance, a man of principles and law, taking a harsh stance but then becoming far more human and kind than we imagined he could be.
There are some excellent supporting performances, bringing society to life. Tolstoy contrasted the world of ordinary people with those who lived in artifice. This is reinforced by Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) who is part of society but whose life and beliefs are with the common people. He is the moral focus of the film and, as with Shakespeare’s plays, after the tragedy (and Anna’s fate is a tragedy) comes the restoration of order.
If we accept the theatricality and allow for the interpretation of Vronsky, there is much to enjoy and think about in this version of the classic.
1. The status of Tolstoy’s novel? His perspective on Russia, on the 19th century? The story, the themes? A classic?
2. The various films, the range of interpretations of Anna, Vronsky, Karenin? The theatricality of this film and interpretation?
3. Russia in the 1870s, interiors, wealth, society, the contrast with ordinary people, the farms, the fields and the harvest? Meals, balls, theatre? Costumes, decor? The score and its reflecting the period and its compositions?
4. The theatricality, the curtain rising, the action in the theatre, the stalls, balcony, the stage, the wings, the heights? The editing and transitions, to preserve the theatricality? Opening doors, passages? The opening out into the fields by contrast? The action and the harvests? The effect of this kind of theatricality in a film?
5. Society, royalty, the number of princesses, the world of elegance, the elite, snobbery? The contrast with middle-class people, Stephen and Dolly, their home, the office and the picture of the bureaucracy, caricatured? The world of gambling?
6. Keira Knightly as Anna, her age, mother of her son, wife to her husband, the traditions and expectations, her comfortable life, servants? Karenin and his age, work, the importance of his contribution to the State? The contrast with Stephen and Dolly, Stephen and his philandering, Dolly and her being upset, Anna travelling to see her, help her, the talk, the issue of forgiveness?
7. Stephen, pleasant, rather stupid, philandering, his relationship with Dolly, his children, his age and being conscious of change? Dolly, a good woman, listening to Anna, forgiving, carrying on with her life?
8. The introduction to Vronsky, the train, with his mother? Young, his appearance, military, his commissions, intending to marry Kitty? His social life? His glimpse of Anna, following this up, helping her, the number of encounters, her effect on him, Anna noticing and the effect on her?
9. Levin’s story, the moral core of the film? His friendship with Stephen and Dolly, his meeting with Kitty? Awkward, love, quiet, not expressing it? Kitty and her aloofness? Levin going back to the country, his family, the work, the discussions with the peasants? Social comment? Russia and the social divisions at the time?
10. Anna and Vronsky, the effect on Anna’s personality, her coming out of herself, yet the tensions? The continued meetings, Vronsky’s pursuit? Their discussions? Anna and her confusion, the response, the moral issues, the gossip, Princess Betty and the contacts, the occasions, clothes, Karenin and his warning? The risk of losing her son?
11. Karenin, a stern character, loving his wife, introspective, reading, thinking, hearing the gossip, talking with Anna, refusing a divorce?
12. The contrast with Vronsky, the army, his career ahead of him, the proposition that he go to Tashkent, his not wanting to go? His relationship with his mother, her dominance and control?
13. Anna, the change, leaving her husband, the passionate affair, the critique, the visits to her son, Karenin’s visits?
14. Levin and Kitty, Kitty and her disillusionment with Vronsky, becoming herself, loving Levin, the pregnancy, the ordinary life, the pattern for a good marriage?
15. Anna, the affair, her becoming neurotic, even paranoid, Vronsky and his exasperation?
16. The growing sympathetic portrait of Karenin, his visits, helping Anna, at her bedside?
17. Anna, the build-up of emotions, the way she had been brought up, her family life, her son, absence of her son? The torment with Vronsky? Uncertain, accusations? The initial train imagery – and the early death in the film? Anna, the station, falling to her death?
18. The tragedy of Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Anna’s son?
19. After death of Anna, the restoration of order, Levin and Dolly signifying order? Order for society and individuals?