In director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the grand, romantic world of Imperial Russia is condensed into the claustrophobic, labyrinthine confines of a theater, the action unfolding against sets and dropped backgrounds, characters spinning from room to room that double for cities, opera houses, and intimate confines of the home.
It is a metaphor that guides our reading of this interpretation of Tolstoy’s work, which focuses on the way individual choices play out far-reaching and life changing affectations on loosely connected characters. But it is also a practical way to solve the double problem of squeezing the breath and landscape of Tolstoy’s novel into a briskly-paced feature film while not losing a sense of the psychological astuteness of Tolstoy’s prose. The result is not a perfect translation, but I found myself charmed by the inventiveness of it all.
Keira Knightley plays Anna, who is married to the “saintly” Karenin (Jude Law), and falls for the young military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The affair doesn’t merely tear apart Anna’s passionless marriage to her husband, it upsets her relationship to her only son, brings social shame on Karenin, and drives the woman to the edge of madness. It also sets in motion a series of other events, most significantly the ruining of Kitty’s (Alicia Vikander) hopes of marrying Vronsky, and the opening of a window for the pitiful young, but pure hearted romantic, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), to pursue Kitty. The irony is that without Anna’s affair, that virtuous and blossoming love would have been impossible.
Tolstoy’s story and this spinning, layered interpretation, complicates our reading of the morality as we pick apart the implications of the choices that set this drama in motion. But there is also something forced and muddled in the adaptation. Part of the problem is an unevenness of tone, which occasionally turns the world of the 19th century into something close to lampooning farce, at other times playing the action straight and sincere. There are some very strong performances, such as Law’s skin-curdling Karenin, but it is a movie that still seems to awkwardly bear the weight of its own ambition.