Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly McDonald
Married to a senior official who is both older and emotionally cold, Anna Karenina goes to Moscow to try and fix the marriage of her womanizing brother Stiva who has been caught cheating by his wife Dolly. Once in Moscow, Anna ends up interfering in Kitty (Dolly’s sister) and Count Vronsky’s love story. Vronsky and Anna fall madly in love with each other, indulging an overwhelming, but prohibited passion. Kitty, on the other hand has just broken the heart of Levin, an old friend who has been in love with her his whole life and who has finally found the courage to propose.
Once again, Tolstoy’s most famous novel has been adapted for the screen. The attempt (at least the intention) is to provide the viewer with a plot that thoroughly displays the complexity of the story.
Despite the title, the movie does not focus solely on Anna’s tragic and adulterous passion, but rather ends up being a sort of general reflection on love and marriage. It is not a coincidence that Anna is present at neither the beginning nor the end of the movie.
Tolstoy himself loved the story of Levin and Kitty. Levin is the Russian novelist’s most autobiographical character, and often it appears that he prefers Levin’s character to that of Anna.
Academy Award winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) has tried to reproduce the organic and complex nature of the novel and would have managed if the approach of director Joe Wright hadn’t wasted the screenplay’s delicate balance. Wright seems to pursue novelty at any cost, choosing a theatre as the main setting to build several locations of the story (houses, ballrooms, theaters, and even train stations and horses tracks). Only in rare moments does he allow the story to go beyond the walls of the stage — for example, when Levin escapes to his beloved rural countryside.
The theater is a transparent and elegant metaphor of a society that can neither conceive, nor allow Levin’s pure love or Anna’s forbidden passion. The theater represents a cold world where everything happens under society’s prying eyes and where cheating on your husband is acceptable so long as it is shallow and according to society’s rules. Unfortunately, this metaphor complicates the vision of the movie and puts it in a cold light, preventing it from reaching into the hearts of viewers. Furthermore, the pace of the film is often frantic, preventing the audience from enjoying the intense and famous moments of the story.
The clearest example of this is Wright’s portrayal of the most pivotal scene of the novel, the moment when Karenin forgives Anna, who appears to be on her deathbed. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it is here that Karenin’s heart unpredictably opens to love and understanding, giving him the ability to feel and live in a way unknown to him before. This is also the moment when Anna, rejecting Karenin’s forgiveness, sentences herself to a life of lies and despair. Nothing of the wide emotional range displayed by Tolstoy is perceivable in Wright’s adaptation. Everything looks and sounds extremely distant and cold.
The casting is almost a perfect fit, unfortunately. The weakest area is that of the main characters: Keira Knightley, bright as always, is far too young for her role, and Aaron Taylor Johnson is more convincing while chasing Anna in the first part than in the second part when he struggles for his passionate and tragic love (Wright skips Vronsky’s suicide attempt — perhaps thinking it would have come across as fake?).
In the novel, Anna’s character is extremely complex: she rejects the forgiveness offered by her husband and demands from Vronsky a kind of love no human can offer. Wright, however, chooses a much easier path and tells us that Anna’s ruin is caused by the society she lives in and by her morphine abuse, completely doing away with the interior depth and struggle of Tolstoy’s heroine. Furthermore, Wright’s Karenin has almost nothing in common with the original character.
Paradoxically, the best part of the movie occurs when Anna Karenina and her story are out of the picture and another story is told: that of Levin and Kitty. In this (nearly) parallel plot of the movie, Wright does away with his formal and intellectual style and faithfully follows Tolstoy. Indeed, the director seems to effectively reach out to the writer’s deep and emotional description of the two characters.
The love between Levin and Kitty goes through pain, disappointment and grief, yet survives it all to mature and soar above society’s shallowness, Stiva’s animalistic passion, and Anna’s absolute and destructive love. Levin must rid himself of his own delusions in order to become a concrete and positive example of the happiness that man can experience in his earthly life.
Problematic elements: some sensual scenes and a partially nude scene.
Laura Cotta Ramosino is a story editor for Rai Uno, the national Italian broadcaster, and contributes to different magazines and web-sites about cinema and television.