The characters in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley as the doomed by love heroine of Tolstoy’s novel, live on the sets of the operettas and melodramas they see in the theaters and from which they apparently take their cues on how to live and love, behave and misbehave. Their world is literally a stage.
The walls of their homes are painted backdrops that rise and drop into place as they make their entrances and exits. A walk across is town is a walk backstage through the curtains and up and down and around the catwalks and into and out of the wings and back onto the stage now re-set and redressed to be wherever it is they need to go. A government office is a restaurant is a train station by a refocus of lighting and the rolling about of a few flats and a change of costumes. We see it happen. We see the identical anonymous government clerks shrug out of their frockcoats and don aprons and pick up trays to become identical anonymous waiters. We see that the snow-covered train arriving at the station is not moving under its own power or with any noise of its own making and that the snow covering it is papier mache. We see torn bits of paper turning into a snowfall. We see that the characters are on stage. We see footlights. We see that they have an audience.
That that audience includes other characters and they are all watching each other is, of course, a clue Wright is hitting us over the head with.
The conceit is startling and potentially off-putting. I suspect that if you don’t accept it right from the start the movie will lose you in a hurry and you’ll find it annoying or laughable (although we’re often meant to laugh. There are moments of deliberate absurdity and out and out comedy, some of it put there by Tolstoy himself. Much of the novel is a comedy of manners). I bought into it, just in time, I think. At first I thought Wright was taking his example from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and expected that at a certain point the theatricality would resolve itself into movie realism. Then…it didn’t, and I thought, So did he film the whole thing as if it’s an elaborate and lavishly-budgeted play or musical like Les Miserables (not the movie) or, since Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, Stoppard’s Russian novel-themed and scaled Coast of Utopia? But that isn’t how it turned out.
Flashes of reality keep breaking through. Real skies, real light, real trees and woods. Real horses. A horse race taking place on a stage dressed as a race course with the crowd filled out by cartoonish spectators painted on a backdrop turns suddenly and violently real as a dozen real horses thunder across the stage. Everything is fake until it’s suddenly not. All that’s artificial is built out of things solid and hard and useful and well-used. And the people are real. Their feelings, their thoughts, their desires, their appetites, and their bodies are real. We see that whenever the camera moves in for a two shot or a close-up. The artifice is all around them, it walls them in, but it doesn’t include them.
The obvious point to draw is that they live in a society as fake and contrived as a play and their lives are a matter of acting out roles that are as limited, banal, empty of thought, stifling of imagination as stock characters. But that’s only part of it.
The larger point, as I took it, is that it doesn’t matter how seemingly completely we’re defined by the roles allotted to us by fate and society, and no matter how determinedly we try to stick to the script and stay in character, we will, eventually, ultimately, and often fatally, be who we truly are. There is no escape from self, which, sadly, tragically, means no escape from selfishness, our own, or others’.
This Anna Karenina’s Anna is not a rebel against a constricting and soul-killing social order, nor is she a victim of that order’s sexism and hypocrisy---although all that’s there for her to contend with. She isn’t swept away by a grand passion or seduced by a brutal cad unworthy of her love and devotion.
She is very simply undone by being who she is. In an unguarded moment she gives in to an innocently selfish impulse. She responds warmly and honestly to a handsome stranger’s flirtatious smile and becomes instantly addicted to the pleasure of just being herself.
Disastrously, aspects of her true self include a big and generous heart, a strict sense of morality and responsibility, a hyper-active conscience, and a fatal ability to see herself as others see her or as she imagines they see her but don’t include the strength to stop herself from wanting what she knows she shouldn’t want and cannot have anyway.
The central conflict is not between Anna and society but between Anna and herself.
When we first meet her, she’s cheerfully (apparently) going about the business of performing (she’s actually on a stage) her appointed and approved roles of dutiful wife and mother which define her and define her in relation to the men in her life. But we begin to know her when she first begins to know herself, while on a train ride from her home in St Petersburg to Moscow, where she is going to act out another role defining her in relation to her family, that of dutiful sister. Her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, has asked her to help reconcile him with his wife who has discovered his affair with their children’s former governess.
On the train, though, she’s between roles and without them to play, she is listless, empty, bored, and, it turns out, open to temptation. And temptation comes, not in the form of her future lover, Vronsky, however, but in the form of Vronsky’s mother whose personal history offers proof that a person can be her true self, act on her dreams and desires, even if the dreams are selfish and the desires immoral, and survive and even be happy.
As I said, you have to accept Wright’s design and stylistic choices right away or the movie’s not going to work for you. But almost just as quickly you also have to accept Keira Knightley in a role that has traditionally gone to more mature and sultrier actresses.
Knightley doesn’t smolder. Her Anna isn’t suffering from repressed desires. She hasn’t repressed any desires. It’s more as if she’s put them away, along with her favorite doll, the corsage from her coming out ball, and her bridal gown, thinking that it might be nice to take them down and look at them to reminisce someday but that she won’t need them or miss them in the meantime.
But what she lacks in sensuality she makes up for in energy and enthusiasm. And then there’s that smile that takes over her whole face as if pure joy is about to burst out of her. And that’s what marks her Anna. She’s not happy but she is not without joy. The signal that something has gone terribly wrong is that that smile show up less and less, replaced at first by a smirk and then by a wild grin that’s practically a snarl.
The wildness grows in her eyes too, as the more deeply she falls in love the more she turns against herself. And it’s her eyes that tell us when she reaches a stage of desperation and despair that feels as though it was the point all along, that the affair has been from the beginning a slow-motion suicide and that as soon as she stepped onto the train platform after meeting Vronsky she was already walking off it to throw herself under the train, just taking a very long way around.
In Tolstoy’s novel, Vronsky is a soldier in mid-career, something of a bully, full of swagger, a man of the world, sensual but not all that tender. In past adaptations he’s been played by the likes of Frederic March, Sean Connery, Christopher Reeve, and Sean Bean, big, strapping leading men in their primes. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronksy hasn’t reached his prime. He’s barely yet a man and hardly big and strapping. He’s slender and pretty as a dancer. In fact, in his tightly-fitted white dress uniform he looks ready to dance the part of the Nutcracker Prince in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. He’s the most obvious phony in a crowd of phonies but in his case it’s a sign of his youth. He doesn’t know his role in life yet and at the moment he meets Anna he’s going through the motions of playing a part he’s been assigned by his mother, eligible young bachelor on the lookout for a rich and socially well-connected wife. He’s making the most of what he’s probably been told are his best features and overdoing it. Actually, he’s something of a show dog and at first it’s hard to see what Anna sees in this poodle.
What she sees in him is almost beside the point. Initially she's attracted because she sees that he sees her. Not somebody's wife. Not somebody's mother. Her. Then she falls in love and there doesn't need to be any good reason for that. She loves whom she loves and wants what she wants and that's all there is to it.
What we see in him is a young man who matures and improves. His love for Anna makes a man of him, a pretty good man, it turns out, just not a good enough one.
Only just about to turn forty, Jude Law could still play a traditional Vronsky, but here he's cast as Anna's betrayed husband and in the part he is admirably and effectively...disturbing.
We're told Alexei Karenin is a saint and he may be. But as the costuming makes unsubtly clear---whatever he wears, a uniform, a frock coat, formal dress, even a dressing gown, comes with a clerical collar---he's definitely a priest, self-ordained, in a particularly pious and ascetic order of one.
With his hair thinned in front and his lips pursed sourly behind an unflattering beard that exaggerates the gauntness of his cheeks and the hollowness of his bony forehead, Law looks drained of vitality, romance, sensuality, and emotion, at least of every emotion that might cause upsetment in others. A professional self-effacer who has reduced himself to his wateriest virtues, his most usual expression is a pained but vaguely apologetic grimace as if he wants you to know he's doing his best to listen to your confession despite his suffering from a migraine. He also comes across as embarrassed by the physical fact of himself. The best part of getting to heaven for him will be the relief of not having a body to bother with or to be bothered by.
What’s disturbing, though, is that despite the beard and the bald forehead and priestly attire, he still looks like Jude Law and whenever he appears we can’t help expecting that now he’ll start acting like the Jude Law we know from other movies, romantic, passionate, dashing, devil-may-care, and that Jude Law never shows up. And we think this must be what’s been like for Anna during all the years of their marriage. She keeps looking at her husband hoping to find the vestiges of a romantic leading man but has to live with, and go through the motions of loving, this prematurely old fusspot.
Still, Karenin is kindly, thoughtful, well-meaning, forgiving---to a point but also to a fault---and, heartbreakingly, sympathetic to Anna’s desires. He seems to understand why she would want to be with a very different man than him.
That doesn’t prevent him from feeling wronged or from asking Anna when confronting her about the affair, “What have I done to deserve this?” The answer ought to be, Nothing. But it’s not. What he’s done is be himself despite himself.
His plight is the same as Anna’s. He’s tried to perform his assigned roles as dutiful father and loving husband and he’s just not made to be either.
This is Joe Wright’s third adaptation of a novel starring Knightley. I haven’t seen Atonement, but I have seen and loved their Pride and Prejudice and I think Anna Karenina is very much a companion piece, visually and thematically.
In style and design, Wright’s theatrical Anna Karenina and his very realistic Pride and Prejudice make a study in contrasts, but the key point is that Wright has reversed conventions for both. Anna Karenina is usually seen as the more naturalistic story, while adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, because Jane Austen’s novel is a comedy of manners, are traditionally more mannered.
Thematically, though, they are of a piece, in that both make the case that people will be who they are whatever is expected of them and that in the end, self, like murder, will out.
The difference is that Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet is happy in who she is and determined to stay who she is and has the strength of will and character to do it, while her Anna’s true self is her own worst enemy. And I don’t believe Wright intends for the contrast to be a moral lesson. It’s an observation. Some people are born lucky in who they are and some are not.
Repeating myself again, Wright’s conceit for the movie didn’t bother me once I got used to it. I even got a kick out of it. But it also did something else I liked. It made me actually look forward to the appearances of the character Tolstoy meant as the moral hero of his book, a self-portrait in the form of the idealistic young nobleman and landowner, Levin, who annoys the hell out of me whenever I read the novel (which I’ve done three times so far, once for the sheer fun of it). The reason is that Levin spends a lot of time on his farm and whenever Wright follows him there, he leaves behind his theater sets and takes us out into real fields under real sunlight. It’s a relief, which is the point.
It also helps that Domnhall Gleeson’s Levin is very different from the Levin Tolstoy wrote, who’s a pontificating, moral and intellectual bully full of himself and his ideals. Gleeson’s Levin is, like Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, still more a boy than a man and trying hard to figure out who he is. He’s insecure, bashful, self-effacing, confident of his ideals and ideas but not at all sure he’s up to the job of living them out, although that doesn’t stop him from giving in to the temptation to lecture from time to time.
Wright gets fine performances from his supporting and minor players, but the best of the lot belongs to Matthew Macfadyen who, as Anna’s self-satisfied and self-serving brother Stiva, delivers a terrific impersonation of Kevin Kline at his manic comic best. It could be argued that all the trouble is caused by Stiva’s magnificent selfishness. He cheats on his wife and then presents himself as the aggrieved party because she wants to leave him over it. He is certain that he is the right and she should understand that of course he’s cheated on her, he’s a man in his prime married to an old woman (she’s younger than he is), she should not just have expected him to rove but given her approval! On top of that, it was with the children’s former governess. He should be credited with having had the good manners and consideration to wait until the woman was out of his wife’s employ. Stiva is such a monster of selfishness that he ought to be the villain of the movie. Instead he, more than Levin, is practically its hero.
He so boyishly cheerful, even in his grief---and he’s genuinely heartbroken at the thought of his wife leaving him and taking the children and crushed by his sister’s death---and so large-hearted and loving and tolerant---he can even stand and actually look forward to the company of Levin---and so forgiving of everyone else’s faults and foibles that we can’t help loving the man. Above all, he is determinedly and happily and admirably himself, and he gets away with it!
Which is unfair. Which is the point.
Why him and not Anna?
Second Run Mannion at the Movies: Keira Knightley’s smile and the courage of Maid Marian.
Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, screenplay by Tom Stoppard. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, and Matthew Mcfadyen. Now in theaters.