In this stagy adaptation of Leo Tolstoy Biography
’s 1877 epic novel
, Tom Stoppard, experienced playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Shakespeare in Love
, skillfully trades plot points for stylized set pieces to put on display the artifice and dramaturgy of 19th century Russian society. Directed by Joe Wright
(Pride and Prejudice, Atonement
), the latest big-screen version of Anna Karenina focuses on spectacle, choreography and costume yet also offers transitory glimpses backstage.
As she must, Anna (Keira Knightley
)—a virtuous woman despite having recently persuaded her sister-in-law, Dolly, (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive her cheating brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen)—eventually caves in to the adulations of dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson
). In carrying on an affair with Vronsky, Anna estranges herself from her niece Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who has turned down an earnest proposal from Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a family friend, in hopes of becoming Vronsky’s wife. Anna also alienates her strict, monkish husband Karenin (Jude Law
), who lawfully holds sole custody of their beloved son, as well as the members of her former social circle.
The theatrical aspect of Anna Karenina creates an effective claustrophobia. The bed chambers, salons, ballrooms, and tea rooms of Moscow and St. Petersburg are furnished stages in an empty theater. To go from one setting to another, actors move behind scenic flats and painted backgrounds. Although not a musical, the production includes moments where you expect song. Oblonsky’s clerks stamp a steady beat. Bewigged, upper crust ladies shake their fans and gasp in syncopation. Extras doubling as stage hands change props and scenery, they climb up catwalks and adjust lighting. Sometimes they freeze in place while the actors move around them.
The conceit reveals the main affair, often mistaken for passionate love story, as a close, frenzied infatuation. In particular, the scene at the ball exposes Anna and Vronsky as stuck in an elaborately coordinated loop around the dance floor. Their arms, like the long necks of mated swans, entwining and separating in a doomed, seemingly endless choreography. Kitty, with her changing suitors, doesn’t know how lucky she is. The horse race, too, is confined to the stage, with Vronsky on his favored giant white mare not able to open up the stride, and practically, if not literally, falling over the footlights to crash at the front of house. A model train on a model train set turns into a real train as it enters Moscow station, but even there the accommodations are tight, proving fatally so.
Despite its close sets and condensed story, Anna Karenina, which marks the third collaboration between Wright and Keira Knightley, gives the willowy actress too much room to emote. Knightley is an ugly crier, and draws out the scenes in which she begins to suspect Vronsky of being changeable. Her performance improves when the elaborate, fitted dresses inhibit her overacting. In fact, as a foil for Levin and Kitty, the pair, as played by Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, could have just sat around looking pretty. The glorious, hefty costumes, which were reportedly influenced by 1950s couture, do most of the heavy lifting. Jacqueline Durran’s designs, especially the clerical suit worn by Karenin and Vronsky’s pale blue uniform, are absolutely inspired.
For fresh air, Stoppard and Wright depend on the Russian countryside—just as Tolstoy did. It is dismaying that the peasants use the same slow rhythm in their harvesting as Oblonsky’s stamping clerks, but Levin’s country estate, and in particular his bed atop a giant hay bale, provide the necessary contrast. Levin’s brief sighting of Kitty, the vacationing girl’s hair ribbons waving artlessly in the wind, furnishes the catalyst for a second earnest proposal. This is how love behaves.