The task of adapting Leo Tolstoy’s 864 page, multi-volume novel “Anna Karenina” for the silver screen undoubtedly possesses a high level of difficulty, not just due to the obvious challenge of condensing such a detailed work into a two-hour production, but because one must be very creative in finding a new angle to tell such a well-known story. There have been 11 prior films based on the novel, as well as numerous television, ballet, opera, and stage productions.
Director Joe Wright, no stranger to finding new cinematic life in a seminal novel (he also helmed the masterful 2005 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”), and writer Tom Stoppard certainly have a few tricks up their sleeves to make their “Anna Karenina” feel fresh. Chief among these is a stylistic choice: highlighting the underlying theatricality of the work, they literally interpret the Shakespearean idea that “All the world’s a stage.” That is to say, much of the film is conducted as if it were an actual theater production — set changes are shown, actors wait in the wings, certain long shots reveal the audience. Even the horse race takes place on the film’s relatively small stage, an aesthetically daring if somewhat head-scratching (given that Wright effectively abandons the concept to showcase exteriors in other scenes) sight.
Wright and Stoppard also tinker with the conventional interpretations of the main characters, though not being an expert on the source or the entire array of adaptations, I will defer to more classically-versed critics to explain the precise differences. Here, Anna (Keira Knightley, teaming with Wright for the third time) is about as narcissistic as one could imagine, though most won’t find her entirely unlikable, as a contemporary audience will be inclined to view her self-interest as a mental disease that is beyond her control. In fact, it’s difficult to interpret the film in any other way, because only a clinical narcissist looking for attention would pass up a perfectly good, well-meaning husband (Jude Law, playing an unusually sympathetic Karenin) for another man (Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Vronsky) with whom she has little apparent connection, at least of the enduring variety. Some critics have blamed Anna and Vronsky’s lack of chemistry on what they see as Johnson’s failure to deliver an appropriately magnetic performance, but I fully believe that the pair’s rather tepid dynamic is Wright’s deliberate way of suggesting the above postmodern reading of Anna’s character.
After all, how could Wright fail miserably with Johnson, perceiving a special spark between the actor and Knightley that doesn’t actually exist, when he gets such spot-on performances out of the rest of the cast? Knightley does an exquisite job of keeping her luminosity in check; without her strong characterizations, Anna’s reprehensible actions would have likely taken a backseat to her attractiveness for many male viewers. Law is also impressive in his relatively minimized part, never making Karenin seem like an insufferable sad-sack through his misfortune. And two more solid efforts come from Domhall Gleeson (son of Brendan) and the beautiful newcomer Alicia Vikander (“A Royal Affair”) as Levin and Kitty, despite the fact that their parallel story feels tacked on, nowhere near as thematically important as Tolstoy intended.
But Wright and Stoppard’s efforts to simplify Tolstoy’s novel are not the film’s main failing; given the enormity of the challenge, the writer and director actually do a pretty good job in this regard. Instead, the real problem with “Anna Karenina” is that it never justifies its existence. Sure, Wright and Stoppard make the characters their own and the stage-bound aesthetic, while a gimmick, is great bait for Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous cinematography. But the filmmakers never provide the audience a larger reason to care. As well-done as “Anna Karenina” is, it can’t help but feel like a product of Wright and Stoppard not having anything better to do at the moment; the film’s myriad accomplishments are tempered by its ultimate irrelevance.