Dir. Joe Wright. Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law
The action of Anna Karenina is set, sometimes tacitly but more often very, very loudly, in a theater. This suits Wright, whose sweet spot mixes handsome people in period costumes with enough tracking shots to make a West Wing fan turn purple. There’s some fairly dazzling work with the former throughout and with the latter near the beginning. Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), doing the dance of changing coats with a footman, finds Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) waiting for him, and as Oblonsky and Levin disappear, it’s the end of the work day for the bureaucrats. The camera continues to figure skate while the men go home, a woman sings, a couple of men play instruments, someone gets on one of those giant bicycles and rides off, and from behind a ritzy partition, Levin appears in a better hat and coat. It’s a solid piece of filmmaking, one that lets us know what we’re in for and which, if we’re careful listeners, gives us most of the plot as well. Oblonsky seems unable to stop himself from fooling around with other women, much to his his wife Dolly’s (Kelly Macdonald) despair. Levin is in love with the Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who in turn is smitten by Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), who is implied to be something of a roue by Oblonsky’s tone. The only ingredients missing from this stretch of film, in terms of visual style and plot, are the Karenins themselves.
After seeing the movie a few times, I can’t help but like Alexei (Law) more than Anna (Knightley); I attribute that mostly to Law’s surprisingly good performance, because the character is not terribly inviting. Karenin is a dull man who has little thought for anything but his government work. He has a remarkable quality of being unable to make anyone happy when he enters a room even though no one dislikes him. Within the standards of the time and certainly by our own, Karenin is strictly moral. He is one of the first people I’ve seen in a movie who believes that marriage and God have everything to do with one another, and that a broken marriage is deeply sinful. Perhaps more importantly, Karenin is not cruel. When Anna reveals that she has been sleeping with Vronsky, Karenin is demanding but, within his time period, pretty humane. His first intention is to make sure that no scandal comes of the affair; his second is to maintain Anna’s” duties” and “privileges” as a wife, which include living in the same house and continued contact with their son. When he becomes harsher to Anna, it is because she has become repugnant to his morality. How can one maintain a promise to God and the other person if the other person is actively trampling on it? If there’s something distasteful about Karenin, it’s that his personal dullness carries over to his marriage. Love is not a quality he knows anything about; he’s replaced it with duty, and he makes his marriage to Anna and his role as a father sound like they have always been dutiful rather than loving. He must be the only person in Russia who cannot see that Anna is an outlier. She is modest, generous, intelligent, friendly, loving. It’s the last one that separates her from Karenin, and surely that’s why he can’t recognize what he has.
The film tries to do most of its positive characterization of Anna through her interactions with her son, Seryozha. He’s a little old to simper as much as he does with his mother, but perhaps we can chalk that up to how enraptured she is with him. There’s no greater threat to her than the threat of having her son taken away, and Karenin saves that nuke until he can’t come up with any other recourse. It’s one of those devices that we are used to in films; there is no way to stylize this motivation other than to show us how Anna feels, and in this movie that’s something of a death sentence. Otherwise, she spends much of the movie smiling at other people. Anna convinces Dolly to reconcile with her cheating husband (who is Anna’s brother) through smiles; she encourages Kitty, who is anxious about whether or not Vronsky will propose, through her smile; she can’t help but smile a little at Vronsky himself at the start, even though he is eating her up from the first. The smile feeds her flaw; Anna is simply injudicious. It is not enough for her to make bad choices, but she cannot be careful when she makes them either. At a ball where Kitty is sure that Vronsky will propose, Vronsky is sure that he will seduce Anna. Anna does not seem to recognize the danger at first, and after some minutes does not care. She dances with Vronsky over and over again, leaving Kitty out entirely. It’s a long scene which cuts back and forth between Anna and Vronsky and Kitty with her endless parade of (oddly short) partners and a frantic look on her face. Anna does not remember that other people will talk; they are all in a theater, after all. It’s the first instance of many where the theater – the idea of being “onstage,” the already established notion that one goes to the theater to watch someone else, the performance – is the right venue. Everyone’s watching Anna, everyone’s watching Vronsky, everyone’s waiting for Karenin to appear on stage.
In this world, there are characters who shine and there are characters who fade out, and the film has a hard time keeping our interest in the latter. Taylor-Johnson is a practically perfect Vronsky. He’s defensive, effeminate, persistent, dominated by his mother and in turn determined to dominate as many young women as he can find. (His mother approves of his affair with Anna until it becomes something of an obsession.) Vronsky might be the only character, with the possible exception of Karenin, who maintains our interest outside the obvious theatrical scenes; he seems uncomfortable in those places, edgy and jumpy. In the very blue house that Anna moves into with him, Vronsky is always lurking around corners or peering with one eye like some kind of sexy Nosferatu. And when Anna tells him that she’s pregnant with his child, Vronsky changes. He has enough moral code to know that he should stay with Anna, but unlike Karenin, Vronsky can’t get off on obligations. Domnhall Gleeson, playing Levin, rarely appears on stage in any interesting way, and the movie doesn’t have the time (and no movie has the capability) to adequately express what makes him lovable and fascinating. His attempts to win Kitty’s hand, or to sweat out his pain during the harvest, are almost like filler.
What would be filler in this movie – the ornamental people who fill up the theater, the largely anonymous array of princesses who aren’t played by Michelle Dockery and officers who are in a lifelong mustache contest – becomes the focus. They’re like the background of some rococo painting, the elements which matter least and which nevertheless are fascinating. The women have stern eyes and wear revealing dresses; the men are mannequins for glittering jackets. They keep their gaze on Anna, hating her more and more while remaining indifferent to Vronsky (and Oblonsky, for that matter). One character talks about breaking the rules; it isn’t what’s moral or spiritual that matters, but what’s tasteful. How the rules can be broken, and more interestingly, how the rules are enforced hold our own gaze.
If you go on Wikipedia and look up “Film and television” versions of Anna Karenina, there are better than a dozen adaptations of the novel. The novel itself is known everywhere; there probably aren’t ten novels in history with a better Rotten Tomatoes score than Anna, and even people who have never opened Tolstoy once know the gist of what happens. If there’s a book-to-movie that deserves an update or fresh perspective, it’s this one. Wright delivers, I think – this is a movie that is criticized a little more than it deserves – but his focus is bound to create a final twenty minutes which fail to spark a viewer the same way that, say, the first twenty do. If you read this film primarily as a statement about the effect of a normative society on transgressive characters, then that’s reasonable. The last piece of the plot’s puzzle shrinks our focus significantly, pulling us into the Karenins, the Levins, the Vronskys and leaving out much of the society which was so important for so long. Structurally, the film does not have much to counter with; it hopes that we will care enough about Anna and her Alexeis to drag us that last distance. It doesn’t, really, and the film comes up lame. To me, that’s okay; much of the ending is so familiar to us – Levin settles in with Kitty, Anna meets the train – that it would be a truly remarkable feat to make us feel with them anew. For a story like Anna Karenina, there’s only so much that we can really see with fresh eyes, and Wright and company meet the goal.