Any Adaptation of Anna Karenina lives and dies with the strength of the relations between Anna (Keira Knightly) and Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna’s fated sexual for the dashing, brusque cavalryman, bringing self-destruction and, at least they hope, “the greatest happiness”, is at the heart of a bold version of a difficult book to adapt. This adaptation is slightly disappointing in this respect.
While Keira Knightly receives flak from certain quarters, here, her Anna is radiant. She easily plays counterpart to her cold husband (Jude Law), and steals the show from her lover, an underwhelming Taylor-Johnson. She moves skillfully from self-controlled, wise advisor to her sister in law to out-of-control social pariah. Her descent is a powerful tale.
Set mostly in a Moscow theatre, the film is complete with backdoors, stage hands, and costume changes. One moment, the space is used for the retreat of Levin (suitably played by Domhnall Gleeson) after his rejection by Kitty (a sparkly but naïve Alicia Vikander) into the dark recesses in the roof space. The next, a striking and powerful horserace scene in which the horses actually race across the stage as the real drama happens in the seats and boxes of the attendees. The theatrical line is beautifully combined with music and rhythm, creating immersive, dance-like acting. This works especially well in the actual ball room scene (a wonderful, mesmerising set piece) before moving on to the comically synchronized paper stamping of Oblonsky’s clerks.
Joe Wright, the director, drew on Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance for his insight on the intricacies of the Russian aristocracy: the constant tension between the authentic “Russian” and their own masks and behaviour. French, not Russian, was their first language. They were, to coin a phrase, ‘more European than the Europeans’, and this insistence of appearance and superficiality is brilliantly brought out by the stylistic conceit devised by Wright (which he apparently told Tom Stoppard, who does an able job as scriptwriter, only after he had completed writing the whole thing).
But for all the excitement due the stylistic novelty, in the end the theatre drags and the energy fades. Levin’s parallel story, as landowner-peasant, is rather awkwardly tacked on. The social pretensions of the real aristocrats that first inspired Wright, as channeled by him through theatrical falsity, gets in the way of personal connection to the characters. Black Swan was a far better example of tragedy writ in large and while Anna Karenina is definitely worth a watch, its ambition is not quite realised.