Viewers of the latest lavish cinema adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) will find themselves sitting in a darkened film theatre before a darkened theatre stage. This “show within a show” is entirely appropriate as the titular heroine’s doomed adulterous passion for cavalry officer Count Vronsky is essentially played out before a disapproving public. Aristocratic Russian society tuts and whispers collectively as Anna awakens to her fatal passion. Her mad love is indecorous, as she dances through glittering, chandeliered ballrooms where spectators hang from the rafters and shifting theatre walls also open up on to real countryside.
The curtain lifts for the first time and the audience is presented with a series of stylised, surreal tableaux, the actors weaving in and out of the theatre spaces with choreographed movements which delineate the relationships between the characters and the various strata of Russian society. The effect is dizzying and at times delightful (Keen eyes will spot Oblonsky’s iconic pear, a huge glittering ornament). The characters move seamlessly from private to public spaces and the film plays skilfully with scale as it shuttles between a replica St. Petersburg train arriving at the station and a little boy’s model locomotive meandering through his darkened room. The balletic artistry of the film’s opening minutes takes some getting used to, however, and when the motion stops, intermittently, one expects to feel an emotional urgency which only rarely takes full effect. Pity and fear are aroused, as in the gory death scene of the wheel-tapper which foreshadows Anna’s suicide, but not to the point of catharsis.
Keira Knightley is rather convincing (her rictus of a smile teetering on the edge of hysteria even in her happy moments) as the wealthy, pampered young wife of the older (and colder) Count Karenin, played with impressive stillness and reserve by Jude Law. Karenin is preoccupied with his important duties as a senior statesman and seems fonder of marriage as a holy institution than he does of Anna as a corporeal woman. Until a fateful meeting with eligible young bachelor Count Vronsky, played a trifle uncomfortably by dyed blonde Aaron Taylor –Johnson, Anna’s only outlet for her passionate nature has been in her relationship with her beloved son.
Anna’s dull but faithful marriage is counterpointed by the tumultuous family life of her brother, Prince ‘Stiva’, who compares his extra-marital appetites to “stealing a bread roll” after a fine dinner. Kelly McDonald stands out as Anna’s wronged sister-in-law and her tearful resignation that “men don’t change” is contrasted with the ostracism that Anna will later meet with a light touch. A light touch is woefully inadequate, however, in adapting the novel’s main sub-plot concerning landowner Konstantin Levin, the political upheaval of the times and his own romantic turmoil. Encounters with Levin’s consumptive revolutionary brother feel like mere distractions from the main story and at these points it is clear that a great deal of material has been condensed into the screenplay.
Tom Stoppard’s script does not privilege dialogue; lingering close-ups stand in for speechifying, but characters do often (helpfully) identify themselves to one another (and to the audience) when they speak. On a positive note, lovers of costume drama are in for a treat as gorgeous ball-gowns and sharp uniforms are in no short supply. Anna’s descent into paranoid possessiveness is nicely accessorised by Keira Knightley sporting a red kimono and an unflattering curly hair-style, reminiscent of 1970s Vogue fashion shoots. Unfortunately, that look, like the film itself, isn’t something I’d like to see repeated very soon.