“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So begins Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina, and in translating the Russian classic to the screen, director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) presents us with a barrage of unhappy families – though after 130 minutes of watching gut-wrenching love it is safe to assume the alleged happy families just don’t exist.
Adaptations from novel to screen are a difficult task and Wright, with his cautious and faithful versions of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice (both also starring his muse Keira Knightley), has previously fallen into the trap of treating literature like a sacred text to be honored and preserved, rather than a jumping off point for further interpretation and inspiration. With Anna Karenina Wright finally takes a risk and takes liberties; he brings the pain, the wit, and the nuance of Tolstoy’s words to the screen in a way that honors them, but entirely alters them.
To portray the tome-like grandeur of Tolstoy’s 19th century Russia, Wright chooses to bring the words to life by way of taking a brilliant chance – Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) allow the plot to unfold entirely within a decaying theater, the idea being that 19th century high-society Russians lived their life as if they were always on stage.
Sets slide into empty space, the back alleys of Moscow and St. Petersburg are portrayed as the backstage of the theater, and characters make their way around props and painted backdrops — doorways reveal entirely new worlds. The point of all this beauty is to underscore that to exist in this society you must play your part; and if you miss your mark, or flub a line, the world will be watching. As one astute character explains of her shame in Anna, it was not that Anna broke the law that upset her, it was that “she broke the rules.” In this world, rules are are the backbone of society, and Anna shatters every single one.
The story of Anna Karenina unfolds in 1874 Russia. Anna (a transfixing Keira Knightley) is a prominent member of St. Petersburg society, married to a respected government official (a heartbreakingly compelling and beautifully understated Jude Law). Anna is devoted, if not to her boring marriage, than at least to her son. On a trip to Moscow to help repair her brother’s failing marriage, Anna meets and falls madly for a young cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who tries his best to keep up with Knightley's Anna. Vronsky and Anna enter a hearts-all-in affair that from the onset is doomed, but as Wright said in a Q&A before the screening, this is that is not a story about happy love, it is about painful love.
The counter-balance love story is the relationship between the landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, of Harry Potter fame) who is known historically to be Tolstoy’s alter-ego, and the beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Their simple yet true love is portrayed beautifully, but rather thinly in comparison to its prominence in the novel. Still, Levin works as a brilliant counterbalance to the bravado of Vronsky, and the devotion to faith of Karenin. Both Domhnall and Vikander lend a quiet innocence a tangible timidity that makes their scenes some of the most affecting.
Beautiful as the film is, (and it is visually stunning across the board,) there still remains a nagging feeling of disconnect. Even with the frantic pacing, the hurtling camera work, the dance-like quality of the staging, the space from audience to screen, to stage, to actor, creates a distance so wide it softens the deep-rooted pain of Tolstoy's characters. Where Anna Karenina is a novel to cry over, Wright's Anna Karenina is a film to marvel at. The emotions are there, but at times the depth is not. You may leave the film feeling wowed, touched, and impressed, but unlike the experience of reading the novel, your heart won't break.