If you look at the list of 2011 Oscar winners, you could deduce that last year was made up of paltry successes (in spite of all the “death of movies” teeth gnashing last year, the year was actually spectacular; you just wouldn’t know it by watching the Oscarcast). On the other hand, 2012 has been a year of admirable failures, as Cloud Atlas, The Master, Django Unchained and others all presented gaping flaws but skyward ambitions. Then there’s Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), which may be the most admirable failure of all, which wants nothing less than to transcribe the scope and majesty of a great novel in nearly exclusively visual terms, making for a movie that is better storytelling than story.
Time and time again Roger Ebert returns to a maxim about film criticism that a movie isn’t about what it’s about but is about how it is about it. That seems to be Anna Karenina’s motto, as it is single-mindedly about how it’s telling its story more than the story itself (Ebert, for his part, panned the movie, but his review is kinder than the two and a half stars that accompanied it, further proving the capriciousness of star ratings). The story is, of course, famous, based on Tolstoy’s novel chronicling the fall of perhaps literature’s most infamous adulterer, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), who is married to the respected government figure Karenin (Jude Law) but loves the passionate Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a dashing and immediate military man. In choosing to be with Vronsky, Anna gives up on the comforts and status of respectable society to say nothing of a stable marriage to a decent man and the custody of her young son.
The novel was named by Time magazine as the greatest ever written and presents no small challenges to a filmmaker, with its brilliant but literary shifting of perspective and stream-of-consciousness style. Wright has discovered a brilliant visual strategy that doesn’t transcribe Tolstoy’s style but his own, creating a movie that’s seen by the audience and by the characters as if it’s appearing on stage. Prop trains are rolled out into a theater where grand galas and fields are reproduced while characters look on from the balcony and private boxes; the machinery of stagecraft can be seen in the wings and during individual scenes, even ones that don’t take place on the stage (the movie mixes real and artificial locations), as stagehands bring furniture into the playing space even while the characters are playing in it. In this, the movie shares its heritage with Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Bergman’s The Magic Flute (1975), but both of those movies were adapting entities that belonged in a theater. Anna Karenina is adapting an entity that belongs in the mind and heart of its central character, and in this way Wright has done a more faithful job for Tolstoy than trying to translate his words could have been.
This is what an adaptation of a novel like this one should look like. It’s impossible to replicate the experience on film of reading Tolstoy or Joyce or Faulkner or Woolf or any number of writers that take full advantage of the written word, just as a novelization of Citizen Kane (1941), L’Avventura (1960) or The Tree of Life (2011) would be folly. Here is an original, purely visual take on a great story that is in line with the creativity of that story if not with the sumptuousness of the story itself. For Anna is playing on a stage, only she doesn’t know it. Not only is her fate determined by outside forces, like an actor being directed, but her every move is public, is taken in by hungry eyes who came to the theater to see something dramatic and have been rewarded. I like this style of filmmaking, the same style that informed Synecdoche, New York (2008), Persona (1966) and Pulp Fiction (1994), one that has a point of view that is accessible but never fully graspable, a movie that’s as fun to discuss what it all means as it is to watch, and Anna Karenina is a blast to watch.
Unfortunately, it isn’t as enjoyable to listen to (except for the score, which is exceptional). The story itself gets short shrift compared to its packaging, and despite Knightley’s, Law’s and Taylor-Johnson’s best efforts, we never get as wrapped up in their triangle as we should. Much better is the side tale of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who find happiness because they want it for each other not themselves. Gleeson, who could be accused of underplaying, is actually perfect, and I wished some of his subtlety would have stained its way into the script and the other performances. For a while I hoped I was going to be treated to a masterpiece in the vein of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), another brilliant novel adaptation, a violent tempest pitched beneath the veneer of proper society.
The script here by Tom Stoppard which has its bright points, builds a nice broth but then boils over and the melodrama takes us out of the story. It’s a script that Douglas Sirk could have subverted but Wright, whose intentions are too out in the open, loses his nerve during the emotional fireworks and deserts his visual strategy, giving us operatic bloat without the music, like actors simply shouting the libretto at each other. Law comes closest to creating the pained restriction of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence; his remote studiousness helps us side with Anna for picking the bad boy Vronsky, but he soon enough is dragged into the out-of-place histrionics.
So the movie fails the story but not Tolstoy (oh, yes, they are divisible) and I think I prefer it that way. Many movies know the notes, not the rhythm, and this one’s just the opposite. There are so many flourishes here, brilliant displays of filmmaking, that I could forgive them being in the service to a dry tale. My mind returns to the office of Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) when he is changed out of his outer coat as he walks through it by a ballet of spinning attendants. Oblonsky’s puppy-like fealty to social optimism exists outside of the crushing judgment of the rest of society (he and his sister share an allergy to proper behavior), and his Falstaffian immediacy can hardly be derailed even as his family is falling apart. “Alexei,” he tells the despairing Karenin after he has divulged his plan to split with Anna. “Don’t be in a hurry; stay for dinner and talk it over. Divorce is one thing, dinner is quite another.” I thought about that charming line a lot during Anna Karenina, which proved that story is one thing, storytelling is quite another.