Like with Les Mis – the other big costume drama of twenty-twelve – this filmed adaptation was ashamedly my first exposure to the classic canonical tale on which it was based; perhaps unfortunately so, since both seem to be seen as some of the least successful renditions. Like Les Mis what first strikes you about this film is the way in which it makes use of a strict and alienating stylistic artifice while simultaneously attempting to strike upon your sympathies and other strong emotions. Also like Les Mis the pensioners in my ‘preview’ audience – I use the term loosely given how long ago this was released in the states and Motherland – left tutting and twitching their heads, spouting such astute criticisms as “Too much of her head”; which may have been a revoke of the cinematography – as close-up and contained in some shots here as it was in Les Mis – or simply a strange observation about the bulk of Keira Knightley’s cranium, either way I daresay that it is the first time anyone has criticized that girl for having too much of anything.
The most, and perhaps only, interesting thing about Karenina is the distracting way in which now veteran Marriage-plot man Joe Wright has chosen to direct the film in order to distinguish it from the many other pre-existing adaptations. In Les Mis the constant singing was unavoidable, an inherent element and so an impossible one to criticize; here though the singular style in which the story is told was solely the choice and invention of the film’s authors – one would usually credit it to the director alone but given their histories it seems silly not to assume that Tom Stoppard, who scripted the adaptation, had some hand in the radical idea. They don’t do as so many have to Shakespeare’s plays and present them in precarious modern garb but they do take some obvious inspiration from one of the Bard’s better known turns of phrase: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
It has to be said that this film looks undeniably stunning because of their choice and to me that is more than worth any of its unfortunate consequences. Given that the entire film – give or take a shot or two in the same way that Les Mis let slip the occasional uttered word – takes place on and around a literal stage the sets are so very small – the distances all painted poorly on canvas and lowered in by pulleys – and yet they are as dense and detailed as any other crafted for cinema this decade. Compare them to the house, street and barricade sets in Les Mis – because hell, i’m comparing the films in every other way – and you will see a clear victor between the two and, if there is any justice, a clear victor come Oscar night.
Though it is often thrown around in similar conversations Anna Karenina wasn’t written by Jane Austen, or a Bronte; it is a big book by one of those esteemed dead, white Russians Leo Tolstoy who I – unlike The Dude – never quite got around to adoring. Surprisingly then for a good hour this film is not only light on its feet but frenetic and occasionally quite funny; something that stems almost entirely from this style. There is no time to be bored, to be bogged down by big names or incessant exposition because the film quite literally never stops moving; as a conversation ends a character will step off the stage through a door recently wheeled in by stagehands, walk a while backstage amongst the props and then return to a newly lavished rendition of the same space which now represents a room on the other side of Russia some months later.
When it works this audacious approach is miraculous, not only lightening the load of the plot with its incisive presentation but wowing as a strange piece of avaunt-guarde art that sits somewhere between Brecht’s blackbox and Sondheim’s stage musicals. This comes at a cost however, because as pretty as this all is it removes everything personal from the picture; to again quote Shakespeare it leaves it as simple sound and fury. This then is why Wright makes the mistake of dropping the pretense for the film’s second half, this material he clearly wants to make mean something but without the emotional attachment the initial hour should bring this straightly told section is, in comparison, simply the slog of over-serious melodrama and worse, when he tries to spice up the occasional shot it starts to feel false now that it is standing alone.
So as I did with Les Mis I left the cinema unmoved and unsatisfied; let down by many of the same mistakes, mistakes which went unredeemed by similar strengths. Wright really tried something here, even if he ultimately compromised his vision, but Stoppard doesn’t seem to have taken the same risk with his occasionally rote dialogue. The cast too simply cannot compare: Law, occasionally a gaudy actor, gives a very muted performance here, impressing with his maturity but by its nature never gripping, Knightley is as she always is and Aaron Johnson impresses more with his look then he does delivering those few lines given to him, so Domhnall Gleeson’s (Yes, son of Brendan) Levin is the only lead who you really enjoy watching, but his plot is given a peculiar priority; its a constant but never consistent presence. So this then is a film more interesting than it is enjoyable, far from the masterpiece that is its source but not so bad that those involved should throw themselves in front of a train (a spoiler that the film stresses throughout with some strange foreshadowing).