Not long into the new film adaptation of Anna Karenina, I decided I wanted nothing more to do with it. I was wishing to instead be home in bed, to have my laptop sitting on the mattress next to me playing Greta Garbo’s black-and-white rendition, or to have Tolstoy’s actual tome in front of me.
This reaction didn’t totally surprise me—I’m a reader by disposition more than I am a viewer. But, because over the years, my film-student brother has stuffed into me Hitchcock’s platitude to “never judge a movie by its book,” I had approached Joe Wright’s adaptation generously—excited even—to see what Hollywood could do with one of my prose heroes.
Wright’s previous film credits include Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, both—and Anna K fits in here too—adaptations of novels set in Europe, heavy on countryside scenery. Wright cast actress Keira Knightley as the lead female in both of those films, and he does so again in Anna Karenina, in which she plays the eponymous character. Anna’s husband, Karenin, is played by Jude Law, and Vronsky, her lover, is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose other most recent credit is Kick-Ass 2. In my opinion, the film’s most genuine performance was by Kelly MacDonald, who played a grim, at-the-end-of-her-rope Dolly. The script was written by Tom Stoppard, who is most famous as a playwright (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) but who has a thick screen resume as well, including Shakespeare in Love.
The film opens with the rise of a curtain, and within a few scenes it becomes clear that almost the whole thing is going to take place on a stage. Characters move between scenes by walking through a set of doors; there’s a hardwood stage floor and, at times, an audience. For scenes that take place in garrets or out among nineteenth-century Russia’s lower classes, the actors literally move up to the fictional stage’s lighting catwalk. All the colors are computer-y and overly bright (though toned down slightly from those in the new trailer for The Great Gatsby that preceded the feature presentation). It’s a big set, complicated enough that we viewers know it to be simply a visual suggestion, but confined and indoors nonetheless.
And the theatricality does not end with the set: the actors move as if choreographed. Oblonsky, Anna’s husband, twirls as servants at his government office take off his outdoor coat and slip him into a new one, and the hundreds of civil servants filling the room stamp their paperwork in rhythm. During the story’s elaborate balls, all the couples move around the dance floor in perfect mirror images and break their smooth waltzes for bursts of ballet-like choreography; when Anna and her soon-to-be paramour Vronsky link up, all the other couples freeze, until they are unlocked, one by one, as the pair passes.
Russian literature is, in general, neither confined nor exclusively indoors, and so the stage-set construction is a problematic choice for the adaptation of one of the canon’s most revered works. Surely in certain circumstances the extra rhythm that the theatricality offers would add to a film, but Tolstoy’s story doesn’t need to be turned into a musical in order to be artful. The main effect of the stage-set cinematography is its quickening: when a character can at once storm out of a room and enter into his next scene in a single take. Basically, it helps make a long novel short.
When outdoor scenes do come, beginning with a trudge through the snow and a misty hunting scene, they are jarring and incongruous. The familiar stage frame is suddenly gone. The colors seem more natural, but strange by virtue of discrepancy, as if you have suddenly switched from looking at color-saturated Polaroids to looking at the matte screen of a point-and-shoot digital camera.
In a form that keeps up with Tolstoy’s own moral code, these outdoor scenes show a wholesome life, while those scenes inside the stage depict an artificial world that is consistently pretentious and licentious. Most of the scenes with Konstantin Levin, the semi-autobiographical estate owner who feels that he is living most rightly when he scythes alongside his peasants, for instance, take place beyond the stage’s rigid construction, and are shot in natural colors. But when Levin comes to the city, he walks right into the frame, and because there is no change in cinematography to reflect the conflict, it gives the impression that Levin can coat-switch away his morals.
To my surprise, the world of society and artifice did, in a handful of scenes, also drift outdoors. One such scene shows Anna making love to Vronsky; another Anna chasing her son through their garden until they run into an unhappy Oblonsky. Unlike Levin’s outdoor scenes, however, these scenes retain the saturated coloring of the stage-set scenes. And, as yet another symbol of artifice, they contain clear visual cues: in the outdoor scenes, Anna and the others dress in white; indoors, she dons a wardrobe of black that accentuates her descent into paranoia.
These differences in significance between the three types of scenes—onstage, outdoors, and outdoors in stage light—were still not quite clear to me by the end of the film. I was thrown off by the weighting of scenes. So many more scenes take place on the false stage that I did not trust the outdoors scenes’ ability to hold themselves up as foils to it, and so it was only in retrospect that the visual cues became so evident. Clearly inscribed moral codes or not, then, so much of the film’s action takes place on the stage that any justification for the scenes outside of it is weakened by the disproportionate balance.
My experience reading Anna Karenina, which I did as part of a college lecture course necessary for my major in Russian, surprised me in its intensity. At first I rushed through the book in order to keep up with the syllabus. But when I revisited certain sections, reading side-by-side in Russian and in English, I got tense and nervous. Sometimes I cried. Though not the capacity to step beneath a train, I could feel within myself the capacity for the intense jealous suspicion that overcomes Anna—and for the paralyzing fear that comes from not being able to communicate with a lover. I would momentarily lose faith in healthy relationships, picturing only her doomed trajectory of helplessness and distrust.
The speed and containment, the aggressive choreography and CGI-coloring of the new film adaptation take away from its ability to convey the power of the novel. As Keira Knightley dives further and further into madness, she seems not to be going crazy herself, but acting out a nineteenth-century aristocratic Russian going crazy. She uses all those layers of distance—time, class, nationality—to make her crazy seem distant, as if Anna’s fate is something that no twenty-first-century middle-class American or Briton would ever find herself overcome by or capable of.
The opportunity in filming so powerful a work of literature as Anna Karenina is the opportunity to take advantage of the ways in which film is more potent, or differently potent, than a novel. By presenting moving, talking people, a film adaptation has the opportunity to show the electric current of attraction, to make active Tolstoy’s complex language of glances, and to show Anna crumbling into despair, all so bright and large that those possibilities within ourselves are unavoidably evoked. By viewing the characters’ feelings and their expressions of them, you ought to be able to forget the gaps of time and place and culture that separate you from the characters on the screen. But this adaptation does not demonstrate the commonality of our time to Anna Karenina’s. Instead, it promotes an imagined nineteenth-century Russia, grandly choreographed, whose concerns are entirely foreign to our own.
Caroline Tracey is taking time off of her Russian Literature studies at Yale University. She is working on a novel and preparing to write her thesis, on Andrei Tarkovsky and the Russian landscape.