Doing justice to Anna Karenina

Not even Keira Knightley’s trademark gurning can spoil a fine new film version of Tolstoy’s classic novel.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 novel about a married high-society woman falling for a dashing young soldier, has come to be considered as both a crowning achievement of nineteenth-century realism as well as a quantum leap towards literary modernism. Dwelling on the perspectives of his characters and varying his style to match, with this work Tolstoy anticipated the way consciousness would soon infect the novel form and alter the mode of storytelling in the avant-garde of the coming decades. The story itself – which examines the gap between the surface and spectacle of Russian aristocratic life and the passionate, earthly desires beneath – embodies similar tensions between a contrived set of old strictures and the essential, human reality to be found beyond them.

Having built a career almost solely on soberly played, period-set novel adaptations, director Joe Wright brings to Anna Karenina a distinctly more stylised and fresh aesthetic. The action plays out as if part of an elaborate stage show with moving scenery, painted backdrops and footlights lining the bottom of the screen. Of course, the use of the theatre as a space analogous to high-society life – in which virtue, wealth and status are performed for public spectacle – is a rather tired metaphor. Yet, what seems at first as little more than a gimmick goes a surprisingly long way to exploring the key tension between surface and depth in Tolstoy’s novel.

Choreographed to within an inch of its life, the scenes flow into one another in a sweeping, balletic fashion. In the opening scenes, we see Anna’s brother, Oblonsky (Matthew McFadyen), strutting from his Moscow mansion towards his government offices, all to the beat of his underling bureaucrats rubber-stamping forms. As the action proceeds through the restaurants, ballrooms and, indeed, theatres of Moscow, Wright conveys an almost tangible starchiness and artificiality.

Yet in and among these mechanical social interactions are individuals that crack the sheen of high society. Of course, there is the titular heroine played by Keira Knightley, whose forbidden love for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) opens her up to new realms of feeling and desire. There is also Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a young landowner and farmer who becomes disgusted with the superficiality of the city. In love with a debutante, he leaves Moscow and tosses away the fancy clothes he bought to impress her when he finds out she has fallen for someone more befitting of her status. As he marches towards the backdrop, it suddenly lifts and we are, for the first time, faced with the outdoors as he marches back to a simpler, more earnest way of life on his farm.

Wright flits between overblown stylised sequences and more naturalistic moments in real locales, forging a dynamic and fruitful juxtaposition. He is helped no end by the spectacular cast, with McFadyen at one end playing the buffoonish, womanising toff, and Jude Law at the other playing Anna’s ascetic but good-hearted husband. Keira Knightley, however, takes this as another opportunity to showcase her signature acting technique, which involves cramming as many facial expressions into one three-second close-up as possible. But even her irrepressible gurning doesn’t manage to derail proceedings.

Playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, following hot on the heels of the success of his triumphant TV adaptation of Parade’s End, takes to reworking the novel with a light and rather sober touch. However, he still makes room for some of his trademark aphorisms. Oblonsky’s remark, ‘paperwork is the soul of Russia, farming is just the stomach’, is a firm favourite, yet he proves himself more than able to tackle the novel’s more heightened and poignant scenes.

Undoubtedly, it is Anna Karenina’s stylistic flourishes which set it apart from the innumerable adaptations this literary classic has spawned. In many ways, it is in keeping with the romantic and sentimental turns of the story, creating the sense of what Samuel Beckett once derisively referred to as the ‘spellbound backwash’ of realist fiction. Yet Wright should still be applauded for attending to the depths of Tolstoy’s work, which simultaneously breached the self-imposed limits of human behaviour and the novel form itself.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Anna Karenina here:

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