TIFF Review: 'Anna Karenina'

Anna Karenina
(UK, 130 min.)
Dir. Joe Wright, Writ. Tom Stoppard
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew MacFadyen, Kelly MacDonald, Olivia Williams, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Michelle Dockery, Ruth Wilson, Emily Watson. 
Anna Karenina is a must-see film for anyone with a serious interest in the art of adaptation. It’s a must-see for any serious film buff, really, because this new film by director Joe Wright (Atonement) is very electrifying stuff. Anna Karenina is a bold new take on the classic novel by Leo Tolstoy thanks primarily to the skillful penning by scribe Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) and the spot-on casting of Wright’s muse Keira Knightley in the title role. Everyone in the production deserves strong kudos, though, because Anna Karenina is one of the most exciting films to hit the screen in some time.

The twist in this version of Anna Karenina is that the entire film is presented as a stage production. Anna Karenina offers some excellent observations on the artifice of social life in Imperial Russia, and Stoppard – a playwright himself – takes the concept of social roles quite literally. All the world’s a stage in Anna Karenina and all of Tolstoy’s characters are merely players in the sham of high society.

The film begins by emphasizing drama explicitly with the red curtain and the proscenium arch of a stage serving as the opening shot. As the curtain rises, the all-seeing eye of the subjective camera whirls around the stage and goes behind the sets as the Oblonskys (played by Matthew MacFadyen and Kelly MacDonald) play out their infidelity drama that occupies the first one-hundred pages or so of the novel. Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, a.k.a Stiva (the film benefits from the pleasure of not having to keep track of all the names), has been caught cheating with the family’s sexy nanny. His wife, Dolly, makes the discovery in one hysterical moment as the sets change on stage. It’s a farce, a showpiece – both their marriage and the scene.

Oblonsky’s affair takes place mostly behind the scenes of the stage, with the public life of the characters playing out before the audience and the private indiscretions of the characters taking place within the wings. (The same goes for the matter of Levin’s ailing brother, who lies sick in a brothel.) There is also an audience in Anna Karenina. They’re always watching. Sometimes they have fans, and sometimes they have opera glasses, but they’re always watching, watching, watching. The audience frequently includes members of the principal cast, too, to emphasize the sense of suffocation that one feels in these highly scrutinized roles.

Meanwhile, Stepan’s sister, Anna Karenina, prepares for her role as marriage councillor and she reads a letter from her brother who pleads that she intoxicate Dolly with her womanly virtue and good sense. A servant dresses Anna as she read the letter nonchalantly, and the scene puts at its centre just one of the exquisite costumes by Jacqueline Durran that make Anna Karenina such a gorgeous, ravishing drama.

The first act of the film serves more as an opening number than as an inciting event. Particularly during one scene in which Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) calls upon Oblonsky in his place of work does the film adopt the tone and tempo of a Broadway musical. The human drones who complete the paperwork at Oblonsky’s office offer a farcical send-up to the bore of bureaucracy while Oblonsky does a funny little jig whilst he sheds his working clothes and dons his top hat and tails. It’s clear who benefits from the work and who doesn’t.

The best drama of Anna Karenina comes in the tragedy that Anna must play in her affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna first meets Vronsky while en route to console Dolly. Anna meets Vronsky’s mother (a strong Olivia Williams) on the train. Anna catches Vronsky’s eye when the trains arrives in the station and he goes to meet his mother and Anna her brother. They make a good first impression on one another and keep each other in mind until their next dance, which comes at the ball.

Vronsky attends the ball as the object of affection of Princess Kitty Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), who rejects Levin’s proposal for marriage because she hopes that Vronsky will pop the question during the ball. Kitty thinks Vronsky a better match since he’s better looking and more well off in terms of social standing. At the ball, however, Vronsky’s baby face has eyes for Anna and Anna alone. Everyone’s eyes are on someone at these haughty functions, for the characters are always performing. The dance between Anna and Vronsky is a showstopping number that has the audience in awe, not out of admiration for Anna’s ability to bust a move, but out of scorn at her obvious indiscretion at appearing so gooey-eyed with a man other than her husband.

Anna’s husband, Alexey (which also happens to be the given name of her lover Vronsky), is a conservative and well-respected politician. Alexey Karenin is played by Jude Law, whose purposely stuffy performance emphasizes the patriarchal bent of 1800s Russia. There is no love between Anna and her husband. Their marriage is a play put on for prying eyes. The love between Anna and Vronsky, on the other hand, is genuinely passionate, but it cannot be fulfilled due to the restrictions placed on a woman in Anna’s “position.” The film smartly uses the parallel love story between Levin and Kitty to show how love that is good, honest, and true can be fulfilled with joy and warmth when society opens itself and embraces a good pairing. However, as one character ominously states, “Romantic love will be the last illusion of the old order.” Hence, the two stories of Anna/Vronsky (tragic) versus Levin/Kitty (joyous) offer a vision with hope for the future, since the younger generation seems ready to prosper.

The ensemble of Anna Karenina is excellent overall. Law is quite good as Karenin, and Taylor-Johnson performs well as Vronsky by giving a meekish reading of the character that shows just how much of a pathetic little shit Vronsky is. The scene-stealer of the supporting players, however, is easily Matthew MacFadyen as Oblonsky, who seems to have the most fun with the theatrical flair of the film. (He even grew his own comical mustache.) Keira Knightley gives an especially fine performance as Tolstoy’s tragic figure. Knightley is at the top of her game in Anna Karenina. She pushes herself to new bounds and shows the audience just how much her corset can stretch, particularly during Anna’s descent into depression/madness in the final act. Knightley is such a good fit for the part that Tolstoy couldn’t have picked a better Anna himself.

Anna Karenina is especially exhilarating because it offers a wholly unique rendering of the novel. (On the Road, please start taking notes.) Fidelity critics might suggest that Tolstoy is rolling in his grave since many of the eight-hundred-odd pages of his prose have been snipped in search of a film equivalent; however, instead of re-writing the novel and facing the painstaking task of condensing an epic work that is dense in both its narrative and thematic scopes, Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina plays more like an intellectual reading of the novel. Tolstoy must surely be smiling since this film enjoys a conversation with his novel, as it observes and comments upon all of the richest qualities on Anna Karenina.

The conceit might have proved fatal in the hands of a lesser director, but Joe Wright executes it remarkably. The film has just the right tone and timing. All the little movements of the audience/ensemble fill up the atmosphere with whizzing fans and gossipy chatter. Likewise, the film is faultless from both a technical and an artistic point of view. The score by Dario Marianelli is elegant and beautiful. Wright succeeds very well with Marianelli, and most so in his reteaming with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who did that stunning Dunkirk shot in Atonement and shows off even more here.

This version of Anna Karenina is an epic piece of literary cinema in all its finest form. This film will be reviewed, discussed, and studied by future fans of the medium. Anna Karenina is fresh and new, and very, very exciting. It’s a game-changer for the art of adaptation. 

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Anna Karenina plays in Ottawa at The Mayfair until March 12.