All the World’s a Stage
I have great awe for filmmakers who take on rigorous, voluminous novels and somehow find a way to translate them to the screen. Certainly they do not all turn out perfectly- many poorly – but amidst complaints over missing character details and subplots untouched, the heart of the novel is more or less maintained. The manner in which it is expressed is another thing entirely, but it is often the deciding factor for book purists who cling so tightly to their own spectacled vision. They demand authenticity, but sometimes a new vision springs forth, a cloud of artistic ingenuity that showers a different appreciation through a different medium.
Director Joe Wright knows this all too well, with his previous adaptations including Jane Austen’s sensual Pride and Prejudice and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Those both starred Keira Knightley and so it is fitting he find her another lead role, this time the emotionally wrought title character of Anna Karenina. Those films both took liberties that some found unnoticeable, others that believed they irrevocably and improperly portrayed individuals. I have not scoured through Tolstoy’s thick romance, but this interpretation certainly chooses to emphasize late 19th century Imperial Russia with a sublime lens.
Sometimes overpowering than the narrative itself (never a problem with Tolstoy’s own writing I imagine), are the elaborate manifestations of cityscapes and country estates. Wright, along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, provides a masterfully crafted world that revolves around a theater stage. Intricate choreography coupled with at many times lateral panning, mixes a flat aesthetic abruptly with seamless depth, pacing stage left into a bustling 360-degree urban atmosphere and then back again.
We change from set to set in what could be called highly talented and invisible stagehands with brisk pace and yet without complete confusion. Once the multidimensional possibilities seep into the production, much more awe is invoked, more creativity at play. Like turning the page of a picture book, we are transported into the heart of each scene, maintaining an attitude, a feeling, a thought lingering so as not to lose a character’s sensibility.
Though, this is somewhat paradoxical in regards to Anna, who shifts moods with more energy than is burned from the coal of the steam engine she frequents on her trips from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Anna visits Moscow to aid the relationship between her brother Oblonsky (Matthew McFayden, another favorite of Wright) and his wife Dolly (Kelly McDonald), finding it difficult to forgive her husband for cheating with their governess.
The steam engine is a recurring motif haunting Anna from the opening scenes until her railway doom. Ripe with melodrama, the source of her own infidelity comes in that same trip to Moscow, where she meets the infamous Count Vronsky, whose hedonist reputation precedes him. He courts her with glances and kisses to the hand, building slowly to a mutual affection. She is married to a bureaucratic official (Jude Law), but love has worn out between them, the only remnant of its existence in their lone son, to whom much affection is given by Anna. The strict regimen with her husband wears her, and the charming Vronsky acts as an escape.
The girl who Vronksy rejects in favor of this illicit affair is Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Dolly’s younger sister, who early on rejects hopeful lover Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) in the ambition that the Count will find her love. After initial disappointment and contemplation on both hers and Levin’s ends, they reconvene and reassess their lives and love. This culminates in a European kindergarten version of Wheel of Fortune, romantically spelling out the other’s thoughts. This side story has a different feel, a naturalism that saturates the screen over the picturesque fields and snow. Their love is pure, but most notably righteous, souls unburdened by responsibilities except to each other.
The contrast becomes bleaker for Anna, caught in between royal duty and public scorn, building herself an un-crossable bridge between two men, both close and distant. One woman comments to Anna that all men keep their habits, seen in Oblonsky’s petty sexual appetites, or more potentially destructive, in Vronsky’s penchant for female seduction. That mustache of his never boasts of trust, especially under the watchful eye of his condescending mother (Olivia Williams). Karenin meanwhile must grapple with forgiveness, as preached by Anna to Dolly, and, in ironic reversal, is preached back later on to Anna’s husband.
The ambiguous nature of love is, mind the pun, the heart of the story. Do faithfulness and dedication become undermined by one’s own appetite? If so, was there love at all? The questions haunt Anna, and Knightley finds room on her pinched face to express the rapid mood shifts and impassioned affairs. She is prisoner of her emotions, and so fittingly wears veiled hats that cover her face- all colors of the spectrum.
The dichotomy between the two relational narratives grows farther apart but still contextualizes Anna’s final departure as less tragic than dramatic. It’s not as powerful an ending but achieves a certain elegance and mystique- the labors and peppering of an individual into an historical work. A novel does not have to remain completely static and chained to its author’s words. It is, like always, a product of our imagination, how we see words and characters come to life. This is a case where one’s vision beautifully succeeds.