Joe Wright's dust-blowing new adaptation of Anna Karenina faces a towering mountain of precedent: not only the greatest novel by the man Nabokov called "the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction" but the whole checkered history of Leo Tolstoy at the movies.
A visit to Tolstoy's imdb.com page gives the count a "writer" credit on 162 titles, including the first of a score of Anna adaptations in 1911, the year after the author's death. (The Kreutzer Sonata is particularly popular, probably because it contains a juicy murder.) The only work of the lot I've seen that achieves greatness — Robert Bresson's 1983 L'Argent — comes from a lesser story, "The Forged Coupon," and evinces the rare case of a filmmaker whose vision is powerful enough to overwhelm Tolstoy's. Because masterpieces of literature do not automatically make masterpieces of the screen, form-obsessed cinephiles rarely find common ground with fans of the British costume drama. (And, Slavic source aside, this Anna Karenina essentially is a British costume drama.)
Tolstoy's family epic has been smartly contoured to fit just more than two hours of screen time by Sir Tom Stoppard. Although principally a man of the theater, Stoppard is responsible for "literate" movies like Shakespeare in Love as well as the screenplay to R.W. Fassbinder's clumsy adaptation of Nabokov's Despair, a film that proves the difficulty of moving great art from page to screen. As Nabokov says, "A tinge of poshlost" — the Russian phrase translates roughly as "kitsch" — "is often given by the cinema to the novel it distorts and coarsens in its crooked glass."
Unlike, say, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Stoppard has retained the structure of Tolstoy's novel, which parallels two contrasting courtships — though the film, of course, favors the one with more sensational action and stars the title character. A wife and young mother, Anna — perhaps most famously played by Garbo, here by Keira Knightley — falls madly for a Russian officer, Vronsky (powder-puffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson, resembling the offspring of a nutcracker and Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince.) The first of this match's tragic consequences is Vronsky's jilting of Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander) who, in the B story, is courted by the surly, shy, and awkward Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Levin is the bosom friend of Anna's philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) — prey to the same governing passions as his sister and to none of the same social and legal reproach.
It is not Stoppard but director Wright (Knightley's collaborator on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) who is responsible for the most immediately striking aspect of this Anna, the self-conscious "theatricality" of its staging. The film begins in Oblonsky's study — but this study is located in the proscenium arch of an empty theater, while an invisible orchestra is heard to tune. Wright misses few opportunities to emphasize the artifice: Painted backdrops lower into place; a toy train becomes the fateful, fatal express to St. Petersburg; the daily routine in Oblonsky's office is a choreographed dance; when the disgraced Anna is shunned by society at the Petersburg theater and she's hit with a spotlight.
Away from those stage spaces where society goes to see and be seen, the scenery is a dingy backstage or the catwalks between the fly galleries, populated by the gray and downtrodden — Onstage, Backstage instead of Upstairs, Downstairs. Wright's gambit should be refreshing, but in action, it often feels like a pricier, self-amused version of a shopworn "experiment" made for East German television in the '80s. It's all in the service of such a common argument that it cannot be received as a simple pleasure. The movie's big idea: that life among the aristocratic class of the 19th Century was entirely a matter of histrionics, of stagecraft, if you will. This understanding is, however, intrinsic to our collective presupposition of the period by now — to say anything else might be truly revolutionary — while the attempted contrast between Anna and Levin's worlds is muddled by the exceedingly picturesque and painterly out-of-doors photography.
Thankfully, the men and women populating Wright's little theater are something more than cutouts. Once deprived of the atmosphere of society to which she's acclimated, glamorous Knightley's emotions come through with a gasping immediacy, and the handling of Anna and Vronsky's inexorable slide into mutual resentment strikes the right note of walls-closing-in claustrophobia. Jude Law deserves special notice as Anna's cuckolded husband, Karenin; his stillness is commanding, curtly conveying both Karenin's fineness as a man and impossibility as a mate. Just as the characters created by Tolstoy the artist got the advantage of Tolstoy the polemicist, so these confoundingly good performances gradually win the movie from Wright's puerile conceit, giving us an Anna Karenina if not for the ages, then at least for an evening.