Anna Karenina is a challenging work. The novel, all 864 pages of it, is full of characters and dramatic circumstances that can seem unnatural or even unbelievable in modern time. The rigid social structures are the core of the work and Tolstoy uses a large cross-section of Russian society to criticize hypocrisy without outright condemning the culture it creates. It is a work of Realism with a capital "R," obsessed with the accurate reflection of everyday life and exploring each relevant thread as far as possible.
Director Joe Wright's film adaptation with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard uses an ingenious device to open up a very dense text trapped in its own time. Anna Karenina is a play opening up on the big screen. The streets are the catwalks above the stage. The parties are decorated in plywood flats and every action is constructed around a moment of theatricality designed to reach the back of the auditorium. As the focus in the story shifts from Moscow and St. Petersburg society to the infidelity of Anna herself, the film becomes a play within the play, sprawling outside the proscenium arch into the unending judgment of Anna wherever she goes.
Honestly, the biggest problem with this adaptation of Anna Karenina is that the sets aren't artificial enough. You can't go from plywood cutouts, unpainted on the back, to lush landscapes rolling into the far distance. When you choose a conceit like a play on film to visually break up the levels of society, you need to commit or dump it. You can't have fake trees and a painted flat in one scene and an actual forest in the next without pulling the film apart.
This is a small complaint in a very smart and stylish adaptation of Anna Karenina. The story is reduced to focus on five characters. Anna is married to Karenin, a high ranking political official who respects his wife enough to not judge her without evidence of her indiscretions. Anna travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to help her brother. Her brother invites her to his daughter Princess Kitty's ball where Count Vronsky is expected to propose to her. Kitty already turned down Levin, a wealthy farmer's son, in anticipation of the announcement. Count Vronksy, however, falls in love with Anna and pursues her until she bends to his will.
The other major plot threads are referenced throughout the film. They're just not the focus. Tom Stoppard wisely picks two complimentary scenarios--Anna's love triangle and Levin's pursuit of Kitty--that illuminate all the rich subtext of Anna Karenina.
The acting is as strong as it can be in this kind of film. There are actions taken that even Keira Knightley and Jude Law can't force into a believable response because Tolstoy himself did not make them believable. These are awkward moments designed solely to push the story in new directions and the cast makes them as believable as possible. You can only push soap opera histrionics so far before alienating the audience. The entire ensemble finds the truth of this adaptation and makes you care deeply for their plight.
The real star of Anna Karenina is the lush design. The theaters are filled with just the right mix of whimsy and accuracy. The footlights are lanterns but every single detail on the proscenium is slathered in gold. The costumes and makeup design take on a similar practical extravagance. Women did wear veils to go out, but they weren't necessarily wearing veils that reflected their inner psychological state.
It's extravagance used to force comprehension on the audience. The design of the film is the equivalent of the airport tarmac employees waving neon cones to guide in the plane. If you miss those story and character signals, you're willfully choosing to ignore them.
Anna Karenina moves as fast as it can and fills the screen with such wonder that a very slow story becomes far more engaging than it has any right to be. If the theatrical conceit had been pushed just a bit further, it would be a masterpiece.
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