In Tolstoy, the theatre is often something to be mistrusted, both as art-form and social occasion, a place of absurdity and vanity either side of the footlights. Famously, the one thing he personally disliked in Chekhov was his habit of writing for the theatre, and said to him: “Shakespeare’s plays are bad enough, but yours are even worse!” So it is an interesting, even subversive idea for screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright to have contrived an adaptation of Anna Karenina set in one place: a theatre.
Here is where the show and theatricality of high society is underlined, where the norms and hypocrisies of public life are conspicuous. Scenes will begin in the theatre building, on stage, or in an auditorium where the seats have been removed, often among costumed extras who will freeze like waxworks while the principals exchange dialogue. Or sometimes, characters will tensely quarrel backstage amid the ropes and pulleys controlling the scenery. This approach gives the scenes which really are set at the theatre a hyperreal quality, though the film’s action will at times open out into the normal sets and outdoor locations of a regular adaptation.
It’s a magic lantern effect, a rhetoric of unreality. The group scenes often make the film look like a musical without the songs. It sometimes has the effect of re-focusing our attention all the more sharply on to the performances, although I sometimes felt that it should either be done completely stylised or not at all, an absolute one-location movie, or a conventional one ranging far afield.
Keira Knightley is very good as Anna, suggesting a new subtlety and maturity in her acting. She is the artless wife and mother, married to a pinched and prim government official, Alexei Karenin. In this role, too, Jude Law gives a thoroughly intelligent performance. Bearded and bespectacled, he behaves like an ascetic or a priest who increasingly disapproves both of others’ weakness and his own enforced tolerance. Anna has come to Moscow from her St Petersburg home on a mission of mercy: her scapegrace brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) has been caught by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) having an affair with the family’s former governess. (Oblonsky’s is the unhappy family described in the book’s famous opening sentence; where all happy families are alike, his is “unhappy in its own way”.) Anna, with her delicacy and tact must speak to Dolly, persuade her to forgive and forget and keep the marriage together. Yet through an ironic wrench of fate, it is on this visit that she meets the mercurial and handsome young army officer, Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. There is a spark between them, and Anna finds herself set on a terrible, fateful path.
The film version skates over that other half of the story which concerns Oblonsky’s friend Levin, played by Domhnall Gleeson, a wealthy idealist who has come to town to propose to the beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander), also being courted by Vronsky, but deeply wounded and downcast is forced to retreat to his country estates and find some consolation in pursuing a life of simplicity, close to the land and to God. His story is hardly as sensational and dramatic as Anna’s, and yet without the mystery of seeing Levin’s life juxtaposed with hers — they actually have a connection in the book, not hinted at here — the story loses some of its perspective and its flavour. Gleeson does well in this demanding role, reduced though it is.
As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson certainly brings conceit and a callow self-regard. He preens well. As in his earlier movies Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy, he is an attractive, open presence, but he is out of his depth here, especially when he has to suggest Vronsky’s later agony and wretchedness, and the fact that he, as well as Anna, has made sacrifices for their affair.
And so the tale continues, interestingly, if somewhat disconcertingly, in this semi-permeable fantasy theatre, from which the characters make their periodic excursions into the outside world. It is probably most startling when the racecourse scene is actually held indoors, in the theatre. The horses parade round and round the auditorium itself. That’s certainly striking, though audiences of a more down-to-earth cast of mind could be forgiven for wondering what the smell would be like, and where the guys with shovels are standing.
More successful, and more moving, is a tableau later in the film which shows the gentle meadow where Karenin comes to terms with his memories, or perhaps it is rather the meadow where Anna had her most ecstatic intimacy with Vronsky. Surreally, miraculously, this meadow is spread over the theatre; the building is carpeted with flowers. A dream of freedom and contentment has spread itself out in a place which until then had been a venue for anxiety and unhappiness. The Wright/Stoppard Anna Karenina is not a total success, but it’s a bold and creative response to the novel.
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