One of the most adapted classical novels in cinema history is Anna Karenina, the Russian masterpiece by Leo Tolstoy that William Faulkner once called the best novel ever written. The story tells a tale of marital infidelity and the Russian society that readily overlooked male infidelity but damned any woman who fell in love with a man other than her husband, refusing to allow her to leave a husband in order to start a life with another man.
There have been a number of fantastic adaptations, the best being the 1935 film starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March. However, when Joe Wright took on the novel, he wanted to find a way to bring it to life while creating something that no one had ever seen. What resulted was one of the best adaptations of the story, keeping extremely faithful to Tolstoy's vision while creating something that raises it to an even higher level.
Despite the brilliance of the story, the idea itself lends itself to an uphill battle for today's cinema goers.
Keira Knightley and Joe Wright re-team for the third time as she takes on the title role of Anna Karenina, a woman married to a senior statesman in an almost loveless marriage. The couple has a child together but still sleep in separate beds, while his job seems to take up all his time, leaving little for her. As a result, the two have emotionally drifted apart. What makes this setup hard to accept is that Karenina is a very good man.
Played by an almost unrecognizable Jude Law, Karenin is portrayed in the movie as a great man, someone who has done many good things for Russia and is respected all over the country. However, while he often neglects his wife, he still remains faithful and has complete trust in her until she throws it all away. There is never one moment in the film that you believe that Karenin deserves what Anna does to him. Even by the end, you feel for the man despite Anna being the lead character in the film.
The sin is when Anna falls into the arms of another lover, a man named Count Vronsky. The one area that the movie fails where the novel succeeds is by making Vronsky a weak man, someone who slouches and falls in love so deeply with Anna that he will die without her. In the novel, he is a strong man, one who has great pride and fiercely loves her. Aaron Taylor-Johnson portrays a man almost destroyed by their relationship, weak and small instead of strong and powerful.
However, what makes this work is the fact that the movie built onto the relationship told in the book, making Anna an even deeper character than Tolstoy portrayed her as. Anna goes through so many highs and lows in this movie that it almost seems to be working to tear your heart out while only slightly rebuilding it just to wrench on it again. The acting of Knightley is absolutely brilliant when developing the fractured mentality of Anna. She is able to go from the highest of highs to the absolute lowest of lows in the flip of a switch. It felt like Anna was bipolar at times, a manic depressive who convinced herself that she did not deserve happiness and that made her downfall even more tragic. She wanted to be loved and then damned herself when she found it.
Many critics have dismissed this movie as style over substance, but I wonder if those critics read the Tolstoy story on which it was based or were even able to get past the showy filmmaking enough to see the heart beating under the surface. The story of Anna and Karenina's love dying is contrasted with the building of a new love between Konstantin and Kitty. It is through contrasting the death of love with the birth of love that this movie really stands out.
But let's look at the filmmaking that dominates most reviews of the movie.
Joe Wright has always been a showy director, whether it was with the opening sequence in Pride & Prejudice, the train station fight scene in Hanna or his previous masterwork, the beach scene in Atonement. Think about those scenes and then imagine him playing like that for an entire movie and you come close to Anna Karenina. This is almost like a Baz Luhrmann movie by someone with even more talent. It is brilliance.
Many people mistakenly assume the entire movie is shot on the stages, which play a major role in the movie. That is not true, but the main stage is an amazing accomplishment for Wright. You see the sets moved into place as a character walks into it. You see someone walk through a door on the stage and end up in another place and time in the next room. It is a gimmick and a trick, but it works perfectly. There are even scenes where a character walks by someone playing an instrument that happens to be playing on the soundtrack. It is astonishing and an absolute work of art in the form of filmmaking.
Now, I will tell you why this form of filmmaking makes sense. Earlier, I mentioned that the people who said the entire movie was shot like this was wrong. The building of the new love takes place on real locations - in a field and in an actual house. It did not start like that though. The lives of Anna and her husband and lover take place on the stage, and that is simply because they are all playing roles in the society. Karenin is the man who leads the people. Anna is a woman who pretends that nothing is wrong, even as her life is falling apart, and Vronsky is the man playing the lover of a woman he will never be allowed to keep.
When Konstantin first tries to court Kitty, it is also on a stage as the two play the roles they are expected to portray in their lives. However, when Konstantin returns home and refuses to continue to play the charade of the society and their pre-determined roles, the scenes are shot in real locations. When Kitty finally chooses to step out of the society as well and accept Konstantin as her husband, she joins him in the real locations. It is only when people stop pretending to be someone they are not, that they finally find love in the real world.
The movie is a tragedy as Anna Karenina has no choice but to throw herself into despair until everything in her life dies. That is because she refuses to really live her life and cannot step out of the staged world of the Russian society. In that state, her love dies. Maybe if she had taken the chance of leaving and starting a new life elsewhere, without bothering to play the role of the damaged aristocrat, things might have worked out differently for her. She could have lived the real life that Joe Wright created for Konstantin and Kitty.
The 411: Joe Wright created a movie that is visually dynamic and like nothing you will have ever seen before. Anna Karenina is not style over substance, but is something much deeper than that. Some people can only see the movie by its shine and refuse to delve deeper into the true meaning that Wright brings to life here. This movie is a deeply moving film that tells a story that visually and thematically comes to life. Keira Knightley should receive a nomination for Best Actress for her performance, and could easily win it. The movie should also win many of the technical awards, and in a fair world, Joe Wright will pick up a nomination for the directing. This movie is a true work of art.