Director: Joe Wright
By Roderick Heath
Joe Wright’s fifth feature film, adapting Leo Tolstoy’s feted 1876 tome, seems on the face of it like a retreat to the safe ground of the period, prestige-laden works with which Wright first made his name: Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Wright’s smart, stylish revival-cum-critique of the globe-trotting action movie, Hanna (2011), was a departure for the director, and stood tall as one of last year’s best films, even if it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. It proves to have been only a warm-up for this extravagant rendition of Tolstoy’s panoramic tale of adultery and social hypocrisy. Financial difficulties meant that Wright had to reconceive his intended adaptation, penned by no less a personage than Tom Stoppard, and hit upon the idea of rendering it as a variety of theatrical melodrama. The result is a teeming pageant of artifice, and heightened, almost dreamlike beauty that throws into relief the always powerful, often raw and disturbing emotions experienced and expressed by its characters.
Tolstoy pushed the 19th century realist novel to its utmost limits of scope and inquiry whilst managing to maintain a grip on essential dramatic intimacy. The canvas of the average mainstream film is far more limited than what Tolstoy offered in creating around the centrifuge of Anna’s romantic tragedy an ontological portrait of his society in all its grandeur, contradiction, and pathos. This limitation is, ironically, one of the best arguments for rejecting Tolstoy’s measured, sprawling realism in film and adopting a style that can evoke the same meaning through cinematic means. Moreover, Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted many times, most famously with Greta Garbo in 1935 and a much-admired Russian version from 1967 by Aleksandr Zarkhi, thus raising the stakes for the worth of another version, whilst clearing room for radical interpretation.
Wright’s chosen approach is clearly patterned after Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1945), beginning amidst overtly theatrical settings that gradually give way to stylised reality and then general verisimilitude, and back again. There’s a certain similarity, also, to the porous boundaries of life and performance found in the films of Carlos Saura, where the performance consciously strives to recreate human drama and, in turn, bleeds over into “real life.” Whereas Olivier and Saura were paying heed of the theatrical origins of their material and turning the audience’s awareness of the artifice into an aspect of their cinema’s texture, an adaptation of a novel has no such original strictures or preordained conventions. On this level, the choice is less immediately apt, except that this setting invokes the closest thing there was to cinema at the time of the novel’s publication. For Stoppard, the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this sort of thing is hardly new, and Wright avoids any obvious meta-narrative structures, a la The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), another probable influence, about the nature of the performance.
Wright’s choices reorganise the predictable rhythms of the period literary film with boldness, vivacity, and a narrative that drives like an unstoppable machine. That’s very much the point, as the first third of the film turns stage machinery into a visualisation of the governing laws and dancelike niceties of a society that is narcotising in its materialism and formalism and alienated from itself. Anna (Keira Knightley), a wife and mother who is still young and something of a case of arrested development, is swept up in a passion that manifests as an elemental imperative, a natural law made manifest by Wright’s intricate staging that transforms the erotic passion that overtakes its heroine as a fatefully choreographed tötentanz.
The early scenes of Anna Karenina, then, are a whirl of stylised spectacle, as Wright’s camera roars around the interior of a huge stage, observing as cast and crew “create” the world of period Russia, stripping down and erecting sets for changes of scene, with actors shifting from squared-off illustrative postures to naturalism. The very first shot is of Prince “Stiva” Oblonsky (the ever-splendid Matthew Macfadyen) framed on stage in a barber’s chair awaiting his shave, the barber marching in and swinging his towel like a matador’s cape before proceeding to circle the prone Oblonsky, sharpening his blade. The suggestion of violence, with Oblonsky as a bull perhaps about to be skewered by his servant, reverberates throughout the film, where a promise of death lurks, of course, but also with one eye fixed on the future, still far off and yet dreadful and unavoidable, when the society it portrays will collapse. The opening’s tone is set, however, by a series of swift, overtly theatrical tableaux, true to the droll mood of the novel’s beginning, as the fatuous, cheerfully licentious, but sufficiently respectable Oblonsky has his domestic bliss ruined when his wife “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald) discovers his affair with their children’s French governess (Marine Battier). In a fillip of Dickensian humour, Wright’s dancing camera glides across the theatre floor transformed into a room full of bureaucratic factotums, labouring in synchronised rubber stamping, and Oblonsky, master of what he surveys, marches amongst them. The bureaucrats then rise from their chairs and change uniforms on stage, or flee to the corners, and the ministry becomes a restaurant where Oblonsky lunches with his old friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).
The teeming variety of human action in these scenes borders on the frantic, as the extras rush to change roles and erect new settings, but is also intricately choreographed, all moving with purpose and design, movement and labour tellingly contrived to support the illusion of opulence, ease, and natural motion for the governing class. As such it serves as a portrait of this communal existence, its structure, pretences, and underlying laws, far more concisely and intelligently than any number of exterior shots of passing carriages would have in a more familiar adaptation. Oblonsky begs the intercession of his sister Anna to convince Dolly to forgive him, though Oblonsky has no actual intention of restraining his extramarital appetites. Anna bids farewell to her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara) in Moscow, and, arriving in St. Petersburg, succeeds in convincing Dolly to reconcile with her husband.
Levin, a landed idealist and fretful, unconfident intellectual, has set his own heart on marrying Dolly’s younger sister “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), and meets with Oblonsky to discuss it. Oblonsky warns him that he has a rival to his affections in the form of one Count Vronsky. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about him,” Oblonsky assures his pal dismissively, “He’s just a rich, good-looking cavalry officer with nothing better to do than make love to pretty women.” Kitty is vivacious but naïve, and she turns down Levin’s proposal in the hope of getting one from Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But her suitor, whilst meeting his mother Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) on the train from St. Petersburg, catches sight of Anna, who has been conversing with the Countess during their journey, and is instantly drawn to her.
Tolstoy’s name itself has long been a byword for artistic enterprise that engages with the macrocosmic as well as the immediate drama. The brilliance of Wright’s conceit is steadily revealed throughout these sequences he uses for holistic realisation of theme. The “theatre” serves a multiplicity of settings and functions: whereas its aptness for evoking artificiality is passing trite, the cleverness here lies in the dialogue of settings, as, in the bustle and closeness of the “backstage,” realism, even authenticity, is located. Its ropes and catwalks and narrow stairwells offer a cunning simulacrum of the labouring grit and functional claustrophobia of the urban world in this period in Russia; it is the street, the market, the hovel, the factory, the hiding place, the feminine retreat. The gilded world erected on the stage and in the auditorium is a constant interplay of spectator and drama, social form and personal viewpoint, barriers ruptured most effectively and dramatically in the film’s central set-piece. Levin’s ill-fated proposal to Kitty sees him approach the girl who, situated upon the “stage,” is glimpsed lounging amidst painted swirling clouds, actualising his perception of her as a creature from a higher realm, one who tantalises and delights Levin’s fervently romantic heart even as he acts the solemn, sober intellectual. The clouds part, and Kitty descends to the stage level as part of a soiree. After his proposal is rejected, Levin climbs up the backstage fly space, which becomes the other, unromantic world, a slum, where he finds radical brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot) dissipating in a haze of fever and vodka.
The floor of the auditorium then becomes the railway station for the fateful meeting of Anna and Vronsky, a setting at once stylised and animated, replete with vividly visualised binaries: beautiful, white snow that crusts the thundering black locomotives, the whirling, colour-drenched crowds and the Morlock-like rail engineer whose appearance before Anna, covered in soot, perturbs her like a bad omen. When she lets Vronsky kiss her hand, it seems to shake the entire train—actually the portent of a dreadful accident, as the worker is glimpsed having been cut in half after being knocked under the wheels by the train’s sudden jolt. This moment is both an apt quote from Doctor Zhivago (1965), where the first physical contact of Zhivago and Lara was announced by a cutaway to the sparking coupling of a suburban tram: Wright cuts to sparking wheels and shuddering steel redolent of a more fervently sexual connection, and also a portent of bleaker tidings of Anna’s own predestined end. Vronsky is charmed by Anna’s concern for the engineer’s dependents, and in his own showy desire to charm her casually hands over a great wad of cash to rail staff to be given to the dead man’s family. This is a pungent moment where Wright’s feel for the underlying fiscal realities of this society are revealed as mixed inextricably with the vagaries of individual natures and brute reality, and the beginnings of a process of systemic rot.
The subsequent ball sequence cranks steadily into an erotic and emotional crescendo: Wright repeats one of his signature conceits from Pride and Prejudice in a shot in which Anna and Vronsky, dancing, are suddenly, dramatically isolated from the cotillion, hovering in bright light that excises them from reality. The sequence continues with an increasingly frenetic series of whip-pans and drunken camera whorls, evoking the great waltz sequence of Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949) in sustaining the sensual force of both the dance and the emotions enacted. Whereas in Atonement Dario Marianelli’s scoring provided the film with an unnerving aural analogue for the reality-ordering drive of its antiheroine, here it approximates her overheated psyche and palpitating flesh. The dancers’ serpentine arms weaving around each other with increasing suggestiveness, and Kitty becomes increasingly distraught as she watches from the sidelines, Anna and Vronsky’s instant ardour in dancing every dance together is all too obvious for both her and other onlookers.
Only after this sequence does this hermetic vision of period Russian society begin to break open. Wright’s theatricality expands to absorb Golden Age Hollywood’s mythical stylisation, with model trains standing in for the real things, and an ebulliently beautiful moment that seems torn from the most classically styled expressionist melodrama. Vronsky emerges from a haze when the train taking Anna back to Moscow is paused on a siding, snow piled, seething smoke and saturated light and colour, like the very ghost of Anna’s repressed desire. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, every inch the dashing gallant with blue eyes unwavering in every shot, dressed in uniforms so crisp and clean he could have been carved from a solid hunk of ice, has an eerie, otherworldly beauty, seeming at first to be an incubus born and bred specifically to locate the fault-lines in bourgeois propriety and strike hard at them, a male bimbo seducer without depth or character. Yet he’s actually as high-flown a romantic as Anna, obeying the natural simplicity of his ardour for her with fixated intent, even as his strong-natured mother tries to offer up alternative partners and dissuade her son from a course of action that will harm her son’s prospects.
Importantly, Stoppard and Wright preserve Tolstoy’s oft-denuded contrapuntal narrative, where Anna’s experiences are contrasted with those of a classic Tolstoyan seeker-hero, Levin, who searches for personal stability and happiness, whilst also trying to shake off what he sees as the ills of his society, including a self-loathing engendered by its Westernisation and the evils of its traditional hierarchies. Levin’s viewpoint offers a substantive diegetic channel for Wright and Stoppard’s inquiring, ironic approach—Wright based the film’s style especially in the tension between the Western affectation of the period’s Russian society—and offsets the raw, biological level for which romantic love manifests for Anna, who is plunged into a tragedy that plays out specifically because of social constructs which the characters themselves try to work around, but fail. The early shot of the barber sharpening his razor gives way to a scythe being sharpened, as Levin joins his peasants on his estate in reaping wheat. They’re frightened and confused by his labours, however, especially as, since their emancipation, they’ve lost the life security they used to prize, whilst Levin is beset by constant contradiction in his attempts to live by reason, which often dictates acting against his instincts, manifest most particularly in his love for Kitty. After being spurned by her he toys with the idea of marrying a peasant woman, and keeps swapping charged glances with one of his workers. Levin’s relationship with his more overtly radical brother informs, and haunts, his choices, as Nikolai, dying slowly of consumption, has married Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a prostitute he plucked from a whorehouse to prove his radical cred, though he treats her as basic chattel.
It is Levin who, notably, ruptures the film’s ravishing, yet stifling interior mise-en-scène when he first returns to his estate, the doors behind the stage parting and allowing him to step into snow-crusted fields. This visualises a clear schism between artificial city and natural landscapes, and sets up the dialectic that reverberates throughout. Later, Wright again refines an earlier piece of his own filmmaking, coinciding beautifully with a moment from Tolstoy’s writing: Levin is stricken by an epiphany when, having slept atop a haystack, he awakens in the dawn-light-drenched mist and sees Kitty driving by in a carriage, a gloriously visualised moment that evokes the romanticism of Pride and Prejudice’s similar dawn-light climax, but with an added spiritual aura and impact. Levin is ripped out of the ambient earthiness of his setting and announces not only his still-compelling love, but also his awakened self-knowledge and his surrender to forces larger than his reason, a surrender he doesn’t acknowledge entirely until the concluding scenes. His second proposal to Kitty, who, chastened and matured in her spurning by Vronsky, accepts the less glamorous but more substantial suitor, sees the duo avoid verbalising their feelings by spelling them with children’s letter-blocks. Vikander’s performance is particularly good in suggesting Kitty’s emotional authenticity and worthiness even when she makes childish mistakes, and the smartness of Levin’s choice becomes apparent when he takes her to his estate. They find his brother and his wife are there, with Nikolai dreadfully ill. Levin moves to obey the niceties of societal presumption to eject Nikolai’s woman, but Kitty instead sets about helping her nurse Nikolai, a triumph of humanist instinct that proves Kitty might actually be her husband’s moral superior as an embodiment of empathy.
The time Wright spares for this aspect of the story is indicative of the underlying attentiveness of this adaptation to the thematic breadth and heft of the tale, rather than reducing it purely to a tale of adulterous passion and social crucifixion: the possibility of a different kind of union is evoked and sustained. Nonetheless, Anna’s story proceeds with merciless force and clarity. Visions of her and Vronsky, both swathed in white and glowing in the sun on a picnic cloth, give way to the trap of space that Anna’s homelife becomes, mirrors and glasses turning faces upon themselves and conflating individuals into functions of one another, as when Vronsky and Karenin catch sight of each other in the mansion’s double doors. There passion gives way to domestic pretence—there’s a ruthlessly funny shot of Karenin neatly plucking a Victorian condom from a silver case on his desk before retiring to bed with his wife. Karenin, played superbly by Law, swings between poles of powerful emotion, from self-pity to vengeful fury to chastised forgiveness, but finally settling into a default mode of acquiescence to socially demanded wrong-doing. His sister Lydia (Emily Watson) talks him into banning Anna from coming to visit their son on his birthday, an injunction Anna ignores; Karenin guiltily watches from the sidelines, looking as if Anna’s angry glare burns a hole right through his self-respect. The film’s major set-piece and pivotal sequence, which sees the private become public and truths forcibly acknowledged, is a horse race in which Karenin observes Anna with chilly suspicion; Anna, in turn, spies on him in with a purse mirror, and drama unfolds on “stage” as Vronsky tries to win the race.
The audiovisual impact of this scene, with the horses thundering out of the darkness from off stage, is tremendous, and so, too, is the vividness of the shattering of the fourth wall as Vronsky’s mount falls and he crashes with it into the “audience,” wrenching Anna into an unfettered moment of hysterical concern that, like Barry Lyndon’s eruption of anger in Stanley Kubrick’s great film, leaves her fatefully exposed to forces that are inimical to individual definitions of happiness. The physical beauty Wright and DP Seamus McGarvey bestow on this film, and the gaudy, highly unreal spectacle in its most florid passages, is ravishing, even hypnotic in its lushness. The major objet d’art is Knightley herself, who perhaps represents the most lustrously fetishized screen presence since Marlene Dietrich, a possibly deliberate evocation. The costuming, providing eye candy par excellence, is also intricately employed as another dramatic device. Vronsky’s chill blue uniforms cut through the earthier tones surrounding him with the keenness of a straight razor. Anna’s veils, at first flatteringly thin, become thicker as she seeks to hide her face from the world, and yet they resemble cracks in a broken mirror, declaring the turmoil behind the perfect face they obscure. A deeper template revealed as the film continues is the ironic romanticism and orchestrated sedition of Luchino Visconti, especially Senso (1953), where every frame is drenched with physical lustre and yet eaten away at by the alternation of powerful, often ugly, but always authentic emotions that rupture that always-present fourth wall of social expectation. And hanging over the production as a whole is the spirit of Ken Russell, the doyen of radical Brit directors, an influence particularly apparent at a soiree where Anna and Vronsky’s affair is finally, properly sparked amidst the dazzle of fireworks and Kabuki-like posturing. I draw attention to these influences not to brand Wright as a filcher but in noting the depth of awareness of cinematic models evident here.
Wright constantly offers a tension between the immobilising spectacle and frantic movement redolent of hysterical energy, and, like the movie, Anna is defined by her constant, extremely neurotic movement; her triumphant moment is, paradoxically, the one where she’s practically paralysed by fever, a crisis that sees her able to achieve an almost saintlike scene of mutual forgiveness and rapprochement between herself and her two men, conquering Karenin’s righteous fury. There’s a touch of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Knightley and Law’s early scenes together as she charms her pasty overlord with her still-girlish mannerisms, mannerisms that fade and give way to leonine ferocity as she enters her affair. The filmmakers and Knightley allow constant glimpses of Anna’s vanity, mental instability, and faintly sado-masochistic impulses, side by side with her admirable qualities, making her a different order of character to the usual run of blankly admirable females bound to be tortured in such period fare, several of which Knightley has played before. Knightley, more restrained than in her full-blown neurotic mode in A Dangerous Method (2011), maps out Anna’s journey as one of compulsions, until she’s finally beset by a cringing disgust and reactive grief in the face of social disgrace and the probability of being exiled from both her home with Karenin and the temporary bliss she has with Vronsky.
The wonder of this Anna Karenina is the precision with which it captures and depicts the inner turmoil of Tolstoy’s characters, and the skill with which it finally removes, rather than adds, elements until, finally, emotional immediacy inverts the focus and the artifice retreats into the background. The film’s most striking moments are those where effect and matter are entwined, like the horse race, and when Karenin, tearing up a letter from his wife, hurls the pieces in the air, and they fall upon him and transform into snow, and his beset solitude in the midst of a fake city is rendered inescapably beautiful and sad. Karenin’s pathos is especially sharp, Law questioning “What did I do to deserve this?” as he sits before the darkened “theatre,” perfectly visualising his punch-drunk bewilderment and the gruesome sensation of being at once hollowed out by emotional shock and left exposed. Anna’s social crucifixion, an outing to the theatre that sees her confronted by her own most lethal anxieties, including watching Vronsky converse with Princess Sorokina (Cara Delevingne), the “child” his mother is trying to foist on him, and being loudly denounced by a society dame (Shirley Henderson) after her leering husband loans Anna a programme, results in Anna’s speedy spiral into a psychic collapse. This is momentarily assuaged, ironically, by Dolly, who cheerfully states to Anna she wishes she had the guts to follow in her footsteps.
By this time, the stage surroundings have faded to a near-general realism. But Anna’s fracturing psyche and perception of herself and others, communicated by images fragmenting in mirrors and the sight of Anna stripped down to her support garments, reveal Anna’s very person is the stage, stripped back to the frame to reveal the ludicrous assemblage required to sustain the illusion of polite femininity. Anna’s suicide, a breathtaking sequence, takes place backstage, where onlookers are locked in friezes, reduced to props in Anna’s aching loneliness and despair, rescued by the prospect of a pummelling juggernaut, a force that both saves her from and mimics the forces that have already run over her, and a bliss of extinction. Wright nods again to Lean’s Brief Encounter, zooming in to the exultant fear on Knightley’s face as the lights of the train carriages whip across her visage; unlike Celia Johnson, she takes the plunge. The final images of the film, with Karenin seated in a verdant field as his son with Anna and her daughter with Vronsky play together whilst Karenin himself seems to have found peace in paternal solitude watching over the children, resolves with a sense of natural grace and maturity. The stalks of grass invade the “theatre,” presaging the breakdown of the order depicted in the film. Anna Karenina is an orgy of cinema, undoubtedly likely to be too rich for the blood of some, and yet it offers an experience far too rare in this year’s cinematic output—a film both boldly conceived and successfully realised on many levels.