Review: Anna Karenina Gets New Film Treatment with Tom Stoppard Script
by Larry Murray
Now at the Triplex in Great Barrington, the brilliant Tolstoy love story Anna Karenina turns into more of a lush and extravagant soap opera in this stagy 2012 film adaptation by director Joe Wright. There is no denying the genius of the movie, it is certainly a tribute to his imagination and wide ranging taste. I loved his film, The Soloist which was a gritty and down to earth story. But Anna Karenina comes at the expense of solid story-telling. The original 1877 classic novel was dense with both sweeping and rambling prose, typical of the Russian style. This is the secret seduction of that genre, all great Russian tales afford both the macro and the micro view of people and their lives.
The fabulous playwright Tom Stoppard winnows the half million or so words down a few thousand, and in so doing removes all the interior dialogue that the characters have with themselves as they focus on their love life. In the process, he – or his Hollywood bosses – romoved all the heart from the film, leaving only the dead corpse of a great work behind, and some glorious cinematic excess.
Wright shot most of his film on a single soundstage at Shepperton Studios and in a dilapidated theatre outside London. These limitations might have been what provoked him to set the film as a theatrical conceit. The visual effects are often ravishing, but their emotional content – especially when contrasted with the original novel – is tenuous at best.
The resultant Anna Karenina is all style, and no substance, a superficial sugar plum of a production that will likely speak to the ironic generation where superficiality passes for depth, broad metaphor as philosophy. The film is shot on and around a theatre, and at one point even a horse race gallops across the proscenium stage. Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor- Johnson) ends up in the orchestra pit. This is seen by Anna (Keira Knightley) who happens to be in the audience, and enables her to show her dull husband Karenin (Jude Law) and everyone else who she really cares about.
The film uses its theatrical pretense as a metaphor. To bludgeon home the message that when Russians of that period followed the norms, etiquette and customs of the day, people were simply playing a role, as in “All the worlds a stage….” Not exactly a new thought. Every age has its ridiculous rules, including our own. No elaboration needed.
What substitutes for real insight into Tolstoy is all manner of tinselly artifice, from luxurious sets and costumes to more chandeliers than we’ve seen in any movie since Phantom of the Opera.
This is not to deny that the swirling romances of the women characters don’t dominate the film. Within the limitations the concept places on her, Keira Knightley makes a decent job of it, as do Kelly Macdonald as Dolly and Alicia Vikander as Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister. The men were mostly forgettable. I actually wanted to care about them for a moment or two, but the opportunities were squandered. Instead we got to watch (twice) the artistic alliteration of of scythes cutting through the wheat, those who wielded them reduced to talking heads while we watch their visual symmetry dutifully displayed on the screen.
When a film spends its time on the screen calling attention away from the characters to how clever and beautiful its composition is, it leaves the realm of good storytelling and becomes simply a self-indulgent exercise in visual art, saying far more about its director and his pretensions than about the timeless characters in Tolstoy’s story.
Daring staging and a great story should have made this adaptation of Anna Karenina the movie to beat this Oscar season. Instead, we have an airy souffle of a film, where the elements didn’t rise, but seem to collapse into a muddle. Anna Karenina may get some Academy Award nominations, but other than winning in one or two of the craft categories, don’t expect any major nods. The competition for real storytelling is far too intense this year.
Focus Features Films Presents Anna Karenina, Dir. Joe Wright, adapted by Tom Stoppard from the Tolstoy novel. 2 hours, 10 minutes, 2012.