Yesterday evening Nancy and I went to see Anna Karenina directed by the still relatively young Joe Wright. His previous credits include: Pride and Prejudice – four academy award nominations; Atonement – seven academy award nominations and one win for Best Original Score; The Soloist about the schizophrenic brilliant young cellist played by Jamie Foxx who ends up on the streets; and Hanna, a very highly choreographed action film I absolutely adored about a girl trained from birth by her “father”, an ex-CIA agent, in a far north retreat to deal with a world of assassins and betrayal.
One of my daughters had seen Anna Karenina and quite liked it. Her daughter, Ariella, a student at Hebrew University, did not care for it very much. So I was ambivalent about seeing the movie. Without having read any reviews I did not know what to expect as we sat down in a very old second run movie theatre smelling from seventy years of popcorn. The movie theatre turned out to be perfectly appropriate for a film that opens in a lavish but decaying Russian theatre in 1874 but with full access to the understage, the backstage and the flies where much of the initial action takes place. If I was going to see a grand Tolstoy tale, I wanted to see it on a big screen and not on my television set.
On that instinct I was right. A television screen, no matter how large, could not have done justice to the phenomenal costuming, the intricate theatrical sets and the wide sweep though rarely glimpsed steppes of Russia. Most of the drama took place as if acted out in a theatre, a comment by the director on the self-dramatization of the story of nineteenth century romanticism and the claustrophobic confines of a Russian rigidly structured feudal society of roles and classes, rules and social expectations. Wright transposes this frigid and frozen society into a dynamic portrait in which footlights become head beams, walls lift as interior scenes slide aside to become exteriors, and reality frozen into a fantasy of class and privilege morphs into tragedy and death.
Tom Stoppard’s screen play is terse and focused on the main story of one pair of romantic idealists, and primarily Anna Karenina played by Keira Knightly (Jane in Pride and Prejudice and Cecilia Tallis, the woman in the floor length emerald green slinky dress in Atonement who is betrayed by the jealous imaginings of her younger sister). Knightly was once again a visual and acting delight. I was entranced as she metamorphosed from a beautiful and idealist saint of forgiveness into a woman driven mad and increasingly paranoid and possessive through passionate love and the sacrifice of her marriage. Devoted to love as she once was to goodness and forgiveness, her intimate connection with her son, her social standing and friendships are all lost along with the disintegration of her marriage and split from a dedicated and loving but very cold husband who idealistically dedicated his life and service to mother Russia. The role of Alexei Karenin, the stiff Minister of State in Russia, was played brilliantly by Jude Law and to his great credit neither I nor Nancy (who is very rarely fooled) realized it until the credits were rolling. As a stoical self-sacrificing statesman, he bears little relationship to the ruthless almost tyrannical figure in the novel. Various types of perceived sin, each with their own price, are juxtaposed with a variety of types of saintliness.
The parallel back story was a tale of a Tolstoy doppelgänger, a young aristocratic landowner, Levin, with a drunken revolutionary brother, who idealistically toiled beside his recently freed peasants as they cut hay as he idealized the simple life. His romantic love of a young aristocratic princess, Kitty, who we see early in the film as a frozen portrait reclining in a white gown against a backdrop of white papier-mâché and then at the end, in an off white much plainer dress as she takes on the disrespectable job of nursing Levin’s wasted, alcoholic, tubercular brother. Kitty is Stiva (Stepan) Oblonsky’s sister-in-law; Oblonsky is Anna’s brother and married to Dolly, Kitty’s sister. Many of the characters are intertwined by marriage; the relationships almost seem incestuous and difficult to work out in the film.
Oblonsky is played brilliantly by Matthew Macfayden as the mechanical militaristic bureaucrat by day and the unboundaried hedonist of the night, but not the full blown dissolute liberal and financially wastrel of the novel. At the beginning of the movie, he has an affair with the governess of his five children. Early in the movie, Kitty was dropped by Vronski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a count, calvary officer and mustachioed Casanova when he first laid eyes on and was smitten by Anna. He circles the black-gowned Anna as the white knight coming to seduce and rescue her from her frozen marriage but is himself seduced by Anna’s absolute love and passion. In the end, he too is destroyed.
The two main love affairs stand in stark contrast. The ditched Kitty, saved from her blind infatuation with Vronski when he was still a ruthless Casanova, reconciles with Levin, the Tolstoyan idealist, but he is another cardboard figure like Vronski for he lacked the critical self-consciousness of Tolstoy or even the self-doubting character in the novel. Attempts at critical self-consciousness in the movie did not work. Nevertheless, Kitty and Levin settle into married bliss.
The Dolly-Oblonsky marriage with which the film begins is pushed into backstage as the film focuses on the tales of two sets of lovers, one which ends tragically and the other which ends in seventh heaven. Under Joe Wright’s direction it turns into a dramatic unmusical version of Moulin Rouge! but one informed, not by the gawdy exuberance of Bob Fosse’s spectacular choreography, but by his own background in puppet theatre, his experience in making early rock videos that tried to bring out the aesthetics and emotion of the musical scene in Britain, and the influence of another famous British director, David Lean, who directed The Bridge on the River Kwai with Alex Guinness and Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O’Toole.
I commented on the way home that I thought the film could have been improved if the actors spoke French, appropriate to the customs of the Francophile Russian aristocratic class at the time as well as the numerous French paintings that the choreography when it froze imitated. I only recognized two of the replicated paintings but I am sure an art aficionado would have recognized at least a dozen. This is especially true in the waltz scene which turns from a ritual of perfectly matching male and female movements into a breathless frenzy. Anna and her count escape as lovers into the lush steppes of the Russian countryside just as Russia was about to be crushed by the changing world of industrialization. In the early part of the film, Anna’s son’s toy train that morphs into a real steam engine, and in each subsequent scene it is encased in more and more ice until Anna’s life too is crushed by the train just as the railway worker is near the beginning that adumbrates the ending.
In one scene Anna and her husband temporarily reconcile. Anna has just given birth to Vronski’s child and is gravely ill. The two grief stricken men, Vronski and her husband, are both present. She commands them both to come to her bedside. Karenin touches Vronski and forgives him. Karenin forgives Anna and takes her back only to find Anna now hates and despises him for his purity, saintliness and the forgiving character she ironically once advised her sister-in-law Dolly to adopt towards her brother. Anna mourns the loss of her lover and once again sacrifices her marriage, this time with full knowledge of the consequences. Is the scene too cloying? In the absence of any pyrotechnics, the emotional power of the tension and transformation worked on me.
Anna in one late scene as she is losing her sanity flaps her fan as she sits in her theatre loge shunned by society. She shakes her fan with increasing vigour until it turns into the thundering hooves of horses as the symbol of the wild passion freed from the constraints of nineteen century Russian social mores and as doomed to die as the horse Vronski shoots that stumbles and falls in the theatre and throws him, revealing by Anna’s scream and crying her infidelity to her husband and the whole of Russian aristocratic society. Except for the previous scene described above of the reconciliation with her husband, the way the movie was directed prevented me from feeling Anna’s passion and her pain. According to Tolstoy, movies “divined the mystery of motion”; this film, which relies heavily on freezing that motion and using film to transpose an internal scene of confinement into an outer scene of vastness and freedom, intrigues us with its technical virtuosity but loses our emotional attachment. Either way, the tragedy of the ending did not move me.
I woke up this morning realizing I had gone with my father when I was a ten year old kid to see an earlier movie version of Anna Karenina with Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson at the then sumptuous downtown Loews Theatre in Toronto. My father loved films. It was the last movie we saw together. My Oblonsky left home for good not long after. I could not remember the earlier version of Anna Karenina at all and will ask my movie-making son how to retrieve a copy. All I do recall was that I was totally smitten by the melodrama, the costumes, the acting and the scenery — as I was by this version. I then lacked the critical self-consciousness to understand if and why a brilliant movie could also be disappointing by its failure to move me emotionally and intellectually.