03 December 2012

Anna Karenina (the movie)

Victor and I went to see this movie last weekend.  We have both been taking a wonderful class about the book at the Newberry Library.The movie on the whole is continuously beautiful to look at: sets, costumes, framing. But is it entirely successful as an adaptation of the great novel?  I think not.  Anna Karenina is of course a long book--even people who haven't read it know that--with more than a hundred characters, alive with plots and subplots. Too much to include in a film, or even a miniseries, probably. This movie, like most adaptations, chooses to focus on the Anna/adultery theme almost entirely, but it neither tells the original story properly nor makes the story entirely its own (though, by the end, it seems to be trying to).

It would be hard, I think, to tell the original story properly outside of a novel today because it relies on a concept of female honor that we don't really have anymore. Anna has a passionate affair with Count Vronsky and can't reconcile her love with the betrayal of her marriage vows. Even within the novel, Anna is almost unique in how her conscience makes her suffer (perhaps Levin has as sharp a conscience, but he is without great sins, so his suffering is accordingly less tormenting). Ultimately, this conflict--not real or fancied infidelity on the part of her lover Vronsky, or the loss of custody of her beloved son Seryozha, or even social condemnation--drives her to suicide. 

In the novel, Tolstoy establishes the conflict by describing Vronsky after he has made Anna his mistress: he "felt what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived of life." (In the film, Anna, in the midst of their first lovemaking, calls Vronsky a murderer repeatedly--it becomes an endearment.It's an interesting transposition, but to a viewer unfamiliar with the book it must seem merely perverse.) Anna's shame is the principal subject of the short chapter describing Vronsky's conquest. Her shame drives all of her subsequent behavior; how can a 21st century movie portray this? (The only example I can think of is Kenneth Lonergan's excellent Margaret, starring Anna Pacquin, but the context of the shame is quite different.)

Instead, Joe Wright's movie (using Tom Stoppard's script) tells a relatively simple and conventional romantic story. Two people meet and are consumed by their passionate attraction. On one side, a marriage is destroyed; on the other, a career. Society scorns the woman who defies convention, and the woman, plagued by insecurities, is driven to suicide. So much is left out that when scenes from the novel do appear in the film, they don't have the same meaning. Fully half of Anna Karenina, the novel, is devoted to Levin's soul searching. In the movie, Levin's few scenes mainly involve his romance with Kitty. When a peasant enlightens him about the right way to live, it can hardly resonate with the audience; nothing in the film so far has led us to this point. It is hard to imagine anyone who hasn't read the book understanding the movie at all. It moves at lightning speed until the last half hour or so, quickly transitioning from scene to scene.

The transitions themselves are unusual, because the action of this film largely takes place in a theater that varies in size from enormous, to really enormous, to as-big-as-the-whole-outdoors. The camera follows characters backstage as a scene ends; before you know it, another scene begins among the curtain machinery. This conceit makes you acutely aware you are watching the retelling of a very familiar story and is cleverly and quite beautifully achieved. Even the "outdoor" scenes are framed in such a way that you feel you haven't really left the theater. You can relate this to the themes of Anna Karenina on at least a simplistic level: the main characters of the novel, Anna and Levin, continually strive to escape or pierce social constraints. They fail, Anna unhappily and Levin happily: society's eye is constantly upon them.

Casting notes: In general, everyone seems too young. But this is Hollywood. Keira Knightley (Anna) looks great as a brunette.  Her Anna has its moments but in general Knightley is better at portraying charm and joy than suffering. Jude Law, a fine actor, inhabits Karenin with almost too much humanity--we should not like Karenin so much, but Law gives us nothing to bristle against. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Vronsky) is adequate in a not terribly interesting role. A handsome cipher. Levin is played by Domhnall Gleeson, also adequate, and also not in an interesting role. Alicia Viskander (Kitty) is called on to be little more than charming, and manages that very well. While Matthew MacFadyen is a terrific Oblonsky (I never noticed his resemblance to Kevin Kline before), he is not given a great deal to do in this movie. Kelly Macdonald is excellent as Dolly; in fact, the whole opening of the movie, a series of stylized set-pieces conveying the Oblonsky household first harmonious and then in complete disarray, is quite splendid. Ruth Wilson is just right as Princess Betsy: knowing and poisonous.

This movie offers many pleasures for an audience familiar with the novel.  The staging of the ball scene, in which Anna first dances with Vronsky, while untrue to the book in several ways, is quite compelling. Also different from the book but nicely done is the scene in which Levin proposes to Kitty for the second time. In the movie, Levin and Kitty use alphabet blocks to communicate instead of a slate with chalk--excellent choice. And did I mention the costumes are gorgeous? For a literary movie, Anna Karenina is a visual feast.

The movie ends with Anna and Karenin's son Seryozha playing outdoors with Anna and Vronsky's daughter Anya while Karenin looks benignly on.  The scene has nothing to do with the book but offers an intriguing glimpse of a movie that might have been made--inspired by the novel but not bound by it.  What we have instead is a movie that takes a few leaps in that direction but mainly sticks to an impoverished subset of the text.