Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay by Tom Stoppard
Keira Knightley – Anna Karenina
Jude Law – Alexei Karenin
Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Count Vrosky
Domnhall Gleeson – Levin
Alicia Vikander – Kitty
Before I went to university for American Studies, I had a pre-reading list of four novels that “anybody studying literature” should have read. The four were Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Moby Dick and either Mill On The Floss or Middlemarch, I can’t remember which, but I hope it was Mill On The Floss as Middlemarch is too long to impose on a 19 year old’s summer, but so is Anna Karenina. In retrospect, it was a tightly 19th century list. Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary have plot similarities, and both Tolstoy (agricultural practice) and Melville (whales) had long discursive non-fiction asides. I’d also argue at the English representative, as Bronte C. and Bronte E. would compete for first on my list, with Dickens C, Hardy T. and Conrad J. all up well before Austen or Eliot (but mine would be a boy’s list). I’d also argue that Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Fielding’s Tom Jones demanded a slot each in a world team of four, and if you’re having a French one, Zola relates much more to 19th / 20th century American realism than Flaubert. Anyway, Anna Karenina is one I have too little knowledge of Russian literature to argue. Don Quixote is the source book for magic realism in literature, so … on to the film.
It’s a novel that’s been filmed a dozen times, with Greta Garbo doing it twice, first silent and then reprising it in sound. Vivian Leigh (1948) and Claire Bloom (1961) are other notables.
Joe Wright’s version has a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, and stars Keira Knightley, who he directed in both Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. Wright’s Hanna is one of my favourite recent films (see link). The big, big concept of the film was Wright’s. Apparently, just twelve weeks before production started, he was disconsolate at the thought of trudging around the same Russian palaces as every other version of Great Russian Novels (my caps). He came up with the startling idea of setting the film within a decaying Russian theatre in 1874. The auditorium is almost round too. He uses the backstage area, the flies, the stage, the auditorium. People ascend into the dusty flies of the theatre and find themselves in factories, or workshops, or Levin’s brothers’ hovel.
Keira Knightley as Anna, with lover (Vronsky) and husband (Jude Law). Full theatre
I’d read that it was filmed theatre. My thoughts were, Olivier, glistening with greasepaint, dark greeny / blue all over declaiming in Othello against stage flats. But it’s nothing remotely like that, because it’s not “filmed theatre,” it’s using a theatrical centre for rapid scene movements (264 scenes) which meld theatrical sets, realistic rooms, and sometimes full outdoor locations into a seamless whole. It’s sensuous and sumptuous. The idea is powerful, and immediately groups it with the two other best films of the last year: The Artist and Hugo. In all three there is a blurring of lines between artifice and reality. In all three there is an awareness of cinematic history. Hugo flashes to Lumiére films being produced with stage sets and costumes. The Artist plays with sound and black and white, and when we’re in the story and when we’re not. Anna Karenina has toy trains becoming full size theatrical set trains, with realistic close up interiors, then shocking “reality” as the wheeltapper gets crushed when the train moves.
The station sequence. Anna has arrived to meet her brother. Theatrical set outside the theatre
It can work both ways. The magical last few minutes shows Anna’s child running through long meadow grass outdoors, then cuts to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) watching their (joint) son playing with Anna’s child, then we’re back in the theatre, but now the stage and auditorium is filled with the meadow.
The “mass choreography” of the large scenes reminded me strongly of one film: Across The Universe. The scene with massed clerks rhymically stamping paperwork, or the audience freezing, then moving. The choreography of the dance scene is stunning. It’s one of those clips you could play again and again. The actual dance is I imagine invented by the choreographer, with Indian hand movements, ballroom dancing and a touch of tango all intertwined. Other dancers freeze as Anna and Count Vronsky dance by. Kitty, entranced by Vronsky is shown with dancer after dancer intercut with the passionate ‘falling in love’ dance of Anna and Vronsky. My companion noted that Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Alicia Vikander were ‘true dancers’ and Knightley not. Apparently you can see it in the area between base of spine and shoulder blades, which was too technical for me. I was simply entranced. Keira Knightley says as much in interviews, mentioning the full month of lessons and rehearsals that sequence demanded, and how natural Taylor-Johnson was as a dancer.
Another brilliant sequence among many is the horse race which begins with the crowd in the theatre auditorium, moves to the horses crossing the stage, then outside to a race in some kind of tunnel with real thundering horses, then erupts back into the theatre and across the stage when Vronsky’s horse falls. Spectacular.
The performances? Joe Wright has spoken (on imdb) against naturalism:
To me, naturalism is the death of drama. Lee Strasberg came along and the Method f***ed everything up. I find people like Celia Johnson are my favorite actors. I was brought up on films like Brief Encounter (1945) and, for me, they expressed enormous truth. Marlon Brando does not have the monopoly on truth!
This is important. Keira Knightley is favoured by the camera in the title role, and like Greta Garbo she is both iconic but somewhat mask-like. Reviews mention that the film didn’t capture the “feeling” of the novel. It’s too many years for me to remember, but the story is huge, Russian and melodramatic and the theatrical style suits it.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky
Wright cast the film young … Aaron Taylor-Johnson was twenty-two, so that Jude Law at thirty-nine in real life, becomes middle-aged. Taylor-Johnson makes a perfect toy boy with his blonde bubbly hair, immaculate white uniform against her scarlet dress (not necessarily symbolic … Russian imperial uniforms were white).
Jude Law as Alexei Karenin
Jude Law gives one of his greatest performances as the wronged husband. He can talk about their union being ordained by God and look as if he means every single word. The two occasions when he goes to get his wrinkled reuseable condom in its silver box at bedtime are poignant. If you haven’t seen the film, this sounds funny or crude. It’s neither. It reveals their sex life as a quiet domestic ritual, devoid of foreplay or passion. It’s when he goes to get the box from the drawer the second time in the film that that Anna admits to the affair, and that she’s pregnant by Vronsky. When he tears up the letter from Anna and throws it into the air it turns into confetti then snow, and he stands silent, alone. We saw Jude Law in the Donmar stage production of Hamlet and he did the to be or not to be speech in the snow in the same setting. That could be a conscious connection by Wright.
Domnhall Gleeson as Levin, location
The parallel plot is the romance between the farmer, Levin, and Princess Kitty. Levin was the one Tolstoy is supposed to have identified with, and I’m told the parallel plot is greatly reduced in importance in the film. It seems enough to make its point. Their romance is hesitant and gentle, after she initially rejects him, being enamoured with Vronsky, until Vronsky meets Anna. It’s a contrast to the passion that causes Anna to give everything up – husband, name, children, reputation – in pursuit of the dashing young officer. Levin’s farm is the longest outside location in the film. The scenes of him scything with his men, all serfs a mere thirteen years earlier in 1861, are the major landscape shots. Scything is incredibly difficult, and must have taken almost as much effort as the dancing scene.
At the end, I expected people to stand and applaud ecstatically in the cinema … I was about to … but nobody did. Reviews sit around three to four stars. I’m an unequivocal five. I’d pick out Joe Wright’s direction, Jude Law’s performance, and cinematography, set design and costume as the major candidates for awards.
After seeing a film at the cinema, I’ll either think, I don’t need to see that again, or I’ll rent it, or I’ll buy the DVD, or I’ll buy the Bluray version (costing 50% more). This one was an immediate ‘I must get the Bluray the day it comes out.’
For Jude Law on stage as Henry V see: Henry V- Jude Law on this site.