We probably all should have assumed before now that Joe Wright and Keira Knightley would eventually mount a work of classic Russian literature as part of their ongoing series of costume dramas. The duo seems determined to mount at least one costume drama from every major literary era and the great Russians were surely always on that list. Well, it finally happened people and their tag-team take on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina includes all of the pained emotions, sweeping camera moves, and lavish costumes that one would expect and it delivers on those expected promises well. What makes the duo’s latest collaboration somewhat startling is the fact that it’s an oddball self-conscious, almost Brechtian experience in audience alienation as well (apologies for getting pretentious, but it’s the kind of movie that requires that sort of talk).
Like Dogville, the film flaunts the fact that it was shot on a single stage and is filled obvious artificiality. Of course this being Wright and not Lars Von Trier, there are at least walls and rooms. But it’s still an intriguing experiment. The decision apparently came in pre-production (much to Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s surprise), with Wright staging the entire movie in a faux theatre stage constructed at Shepperton Studios. The director apparently considered it a way to represent how the lives of the characters were performed like puppets on a stage, through ritualized unnatural behavior and costumes rather than clothing. The result plays out something like a Ken Russell movie (minus all that nasty/awesome perversion), constantly reminding the audience they are watching something artificial through the use of model trains, fake horses, actors freezing in tableau, and all manner of other idiosyncrasies that popped into Wright’s head. It’s an intriguing way of forcing vibrancy into a fairly cold and calculated tale, albeit one sure to split audiences.
It’s the kind of sprawling narrative that doesn’t lend itself to easy synopsis, but I’ll try. Anna (Kiera Knightley) is a wealthy woman of marriage who lives a life on the public stage through dances and dinners. She’s marred to the uptight richy rich Karenin (Jude Law) and they have a son/glowing reputation in the community. However, that doesn’t stop Anna from falling for the prim n’ proper mustached stud Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor Johnson). An affair ensues and eventually Anna decides to abandon social order for love. When that happens, her life and reputation crumbles. Soon she can’t leave the house without whispers of scorn and in a opulent society that entertains itself through gossip and scandal, that puts her in a bit of a suicidal pickle. At the same time we’re also treated to a more straightforward romantic tale of a farm boy landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson aka one of the Weasley twins from Harry Potter) and the unbearably lovely Kitty (Alicia Wikander). Their pure tale of love exists in stark contrast to the cynical A-plot of corrupted morality and makes the pain of Anna tale cut just a little deeper. Plus a lot of other stuff happens as well. It’s a big book and a long movie. Whatcha gonna to do?
Tolstoy’s tale has been weaved countless times before on the big screen and elsewhere, so Wright’s deeply self-conscious production at least offers the opportunity to play things out a little differently. While the flaunted artificiality reeks of theatrical origins, Wright’s patented swooping, dancing cameras ensure a cinematic gloss at all times. It’s a theatrical movie, but thankfully not a stagey one. Within all of Wright’s in-your-face stylistic flourishes, the cast perform the material completely straight, as if nothing unusual were happening around them. Knightley adds some venom to her ice queen persona as Anna, Jude Law comes off unexpectedly small and pathetic (in a good way) as Karenin, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is both dapper and appropriately prickish a Count Vronsky (with a moustache admittedly doing plenty of work for him). Gleeson and Wikander appropriately play their material like doe-eyed star crossed lovers and mercifully do it without coming off like cardboard caricatures. The rest of the supporting players play somewhat comic versions of their characters (Tolstoy had a collection of characters to rival the phone book for volume in this one). That’s not the expected choice but the right one, as the long sad story was desperately in need of levity and it’s not as if the comedic asides could possibly be more distracting than the staging.
This is certainly an unusual take on a well-known tale, offering both an honorable adaptation and surreal experiment at once. It would be a mistake to call it anything close to a masterpiece though. All of Wright’s experimentation suggests a certain level of boredom with the material. The filmmaker was clearly desperate for any idea that might force life and color into the long and stately tale. What he did certainly makes for a movie that defies expectations and constantly provides something for audiences to admire in the corners of the frame. The classic story is still there, but all of the extras will most likely (and rightfully) irritate purists. This is a filmmaker going out of his way to change and update what’s considered a literary masterpiece and it’s impossible to say that everything Wright forced onto the material added to the source. However, given the choice between this slightly mad adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel or a pleasantly stuffy traditional take, at least this version of Anna Karenina offers the unexpected. It also suggests that Wright might finally be getting bored with the whole costume drama thing and given how well his action movie Hanna worked last year, a drastic change in subject matter might be the best thing for Wright to do to extend his shelf life as a filmmaker. I’m not saying he should be put in charge of the next Marvel franchise or anything, but simply setting his next movie in the present day might be a good start.