Unfortunately, I haven’t read the greatest novel ever written. I’m such an uncultured ignoramus that I haven’t read any Tolstoy, let alone in untranslated form (one simply must, in order to savour his nuances). This should be neither here nor there when it comes to appreciation of a film version. Ultimately, it will be for those familiar with a text or other source material; deviation tends to be regarded somewhere between creatively inadvisable and outright sacrilegious.
With Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina there are additional problems with approaching it as a distinct work in its own right, as he embraces a purposefully distracting (at least initially) artifice by setting much of the melodrama in and around a stage. Wright has argued that this highlights the theatrical fakery of the Russian aristocracy, but we know that’s really bullshit. It’s because (a) he couldn’t get the money together for an outright 19th century epic and (b) he fancies himself as an auteur wont to make such idiosyncratic choices. Hey, if he fails at least he can claim it was a brave and misunderstood choice.
Ultimately the problems with his film, coming from an unversed layman untutored in the world of the Russian novel, have little to do with his stylistic choices, however. Mostly they relate to his singular failure to allow the audience to identify with the central characters. This is, likely, partly an issue of casting; I have seen many comments singling Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky in particular as a misstep. Certainly, Taylor-Johnson has revealed himself as very much a “hair” actor this year; what with his bleach blonde here and dreads in Savages.
But my greater problem is with Karenina herself. I was consistently conscious of how little insight is provided into the choices made by Keira Knightley’s Anna. Vronksy is a blank slate, almost as if there was zero interest in fleshing him out, but surely the title character shouldn’t be quite so undernourished that her long-suffering husband Karenin seems like an absolute saint? Don’t you, as director, have a responsibility to ensure your audience at least becomes involved with the fate of the main protagonist?
I’m hesitant to say Knightley is miscast for reasons of ignorance of the source material, but she didn’t seem the perfect fit of her earlier Wright literary collaboration, Pride & Prejudice. Part of the blame for the failure to make us care for the leads must go to Tom Stoppard, as the adaptor of the novel. Stoppard has delivered screen work both triumphant (Brazil, Shakespeare in Love, the recent Parade’s End) and middling (most of the rest), and this definitely falls into the latter category. We are not invited to understand her choices; she seems selfish and transitory, rushing after a vacuous pretty boy, leaving her child and showing no remorse towards her husband. Are we expected to shed a conciliatory tear when high society spurns her?
Karenin, meanwhile, may be a stuffy intellectual but he is shown to respond to her whims in a measured and fair fashion until she waves her affair in his face one time too often. If Wright is iffy in his choice of leads, he is bang on casting Law. I’ve had an about turn regarding the actor in the past few years as he has made the transition from vain leading duties to supporting parts showing the extent of his talent. Balding, bespectacled and bearded, Law is suitably “propped” visually, but this is one of the best things he’s done on the big screen. It’s interesting to see him become something of an elder statesman here, surrounded by juniors both in age and acting chops. The other prop acting is the curious choice by Wright to focus on Karenin’s use of 19th century johnnies, which does rather tell you a director is fixating on the trees and missing the wood.
Wright’s decisions over when to permit exteriors appears somewhat arbitrary. Apparently, the only many character seen outside the theatre is Levin (Domhall Gleeson) as he sees the falseness of the artistocracy and distances himself from them. Thus, we see him working away in fields of wheat (cue Love and Death). Yet, I could have sworn exterior establishing shots are used for scenes involving Anna and others (and were the country house scenes all filmed at Shepperton; the level of artifice appeared to wax and wane?) This goes to muddy the point Wright is making. More of a concern in general is that it’s a distracting device, even when Wright pulls off dazzling visual coups. The director has his work cut out for him as it is trying to make these characters work, let alone piling on the disassociation.
When his flourishes succeed, they make a strong impression; the horseracing scene is gripping, and the moment where Anna flees her husband, finding herself with Vronsky seconds later as she hurries to him through a garden maze, is a bravura sleight of hand. Wright also steals effectively from himself during the ball sequence, as Anna and Vronsky find themselves alone in the room, so caught up with each other are they (the director did the same thing in Pride & Prejudice). Wright’s a talented director, but he borders on the pretentious in his desire to make the literary trendy. It’s telling that his best film is the one with the least illusions, 2011’s action flick Hanna.
It's little surprise that this has been nominated chiefly in technical categories at the Oscars. That's the problem; all the attention has gone on the production design, costumes and camera work at the expense of the tale itself.
It’s the pervading lack of depth that does the most damage. Supporting characters are insufficiently integrated; Macfadyen is charismatically mustachioed whenever he appears but this is too infrequent. Strong as Gleeson is, Stoppard appears to be paying lip service to including the character; the intellectual discussions of class don’t seem to involve either Stoppard or Wright. So it’s left to arena of sexual propriety to explore the high society and its values. And, as mentioned, this fails because the characters aren’t there.
At some point I’m sure Joe Wright will make a truly great film. Hanna was close, but both Atonement and The Soloist were patchy affairs. His Pride & Prejudice is a much more satisfying adaptation than Anna Karenina. There the choices added vibrancy and freshness to the much-filmed novel. With Anna Karenina, he appears to have over-thought his visual language and under-honed his cast. The result is sporadically engrossing but ultimately uneven and rather shallow; it’s a film that becomes about the window dressing rather than the story and characters.