Christmas is the season for literary adaptations; this year alone we have Les Misérables, On The Road and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The latter has been adapted for the big screen several times before, most notably in the 1935 version directed by Clarence Brown and starring Greta Garbo. The surging romantic tragedy of a woman who sacrifices her social status (hence, arguably, her entire existence) for love could be a very heavy matter to deal with when put in the wrong hands.
Director Joe Wright (responsible for such great films as Atonement and Hanna) takes the Tolstoy novel and gives it the masterful treatment it deserves. Anna Karenina is not shot as a period piece, but as a highly-stylized play set in one of those rich, gorgeous theatres of the past. The idea is to convey the rigid social mores of aristocratic society in czarist Russia, where fakery and glamour stepped hand in hand, and every social appearance was in fact a performance.
Starring a magnificent Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina (in her third collaboration with Wright, after Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), this is an original and beautiful adaptation of a great novel — a combination that rarely exists in a world where great novels are always better than their movie versions.
Screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Brazil) gives Anna Karenina a royal treatment with a screenplay that is true to Tolstoy’s creation. The casting is impeccable, and if there is one thing British actors can do better than anyone, it is theatre. Jude Law stands out as Aleksei Karenin, Anna’s righteous God-fearing and law-obeying husband. Law is also probably the only actor on Earth who could have successfully played either the husband or the lover in this story; here, the role of Count Vronsky is bestowed upon Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy), whose performance fuels the film with an erotic charge.
Knightley is a vision (costume designer Jacqueline Durran must be mentioned); all of Anna is in her gaze — yearning, passionate and at times helpless, but never remorseful. The heartwarming side story of landowner Konstantin Levin (the wonderful Domhall Gleeson of Harry Potter and Never Let Me Go) and Kitty Shcherbatska (newcomer Alicia Vikander) gives the film light, just as it does in the novel.
Anna Karenina is not just a story about tragic love, but rather about love devoid of reason. Wright’s adaptation seems inspired by a line in the novel: “All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” The film itself is a play between light and shadow, both in its mise-en-scène and in the story’s treatment. While Anna’s relationship with Vronsky is doomed and over-exposed, the one between Kitty and Levin is full of hope. It is a heavy set-up, but you should let it work its way into your heart. ■