Each new film adaptation of a classic must make choices about the images and symbols that will accompany its characters and help to reveal the significance of what happens to them. This is especially true when adapting a very long, profound, and polyphonic novel such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Such choices by a director and by actors will forever color the impressions of a viewer encountering the story for the first time, even if she or he should go on to read the novel or watch other films of it. For viewers who already know it, from its original or other renderings, a new adaptation is still an exciting opportunity to experience the work in a completely new way. In its boldness, Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina does not disappoint, with its abundant creativity and fresh emphasis, attributable undoubtedly as well to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.
I’d like to highlight one motif that struck me as I watched (and listened–sounds are very important in this film too). That motif is the alternation of breakage and (when possible) mending, mostly concerning the delicate relationships between people but extending to other things as well. The viewer learns right away that the film will dance between scenes explicitly framed on stage as moving tableaux and “real” scenes, often introduced by spillage of the action over the proscenium or stretching out across an infinite rear stage. This gives the whole film an impressive trompe l’oeil quality, where one can’t always be sure what one is seeing. (The last scene of the film is a particular triumph of Wright’s technique.) This method yields the first “breakages”–breaking the habitual rules governing the boundaries between stage and life, and breaking with our expectations of how period novels should be told on film. In effect, the director announces immediately, “This will not be a well-behaved costume drama, so watch carefully!” And indeed we do, because besides being sumptuous, it is paced quickly with sudden switches and interruptions. Interestingly, chronological sequence is obeyed, giving the viewer at least one reliable anchor. Perhaps, since Tolstoy inserted so much foreshadowing into his plot, there is little need to rearrange events to hint at the final outcome.
The early scenes visit the daily life and family strife of Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, played delightfully by Matthew Macfadyen, who was Keira Knightley’s Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. As Stiva, Macfadyen turns in an expansive, scene-stealing performance! His arrival at his office is a tuneful, surreal dance that made me wonder if this would be a musical throughout? But in the first of many abrupt ruptures, the background melody of the characters’ lives is broken by the jangling of tragedy, the death of the train attendant, witnessed by Anna and blighting her initial passing encounter of Vronsky at the station.
Anna comes to visit her brother’s family in Moscow on a mission to mend the marriage whose breakage is threatened by Stiva’s unfaithfulness to his wife Dolly. Anna’s appeal to her sister-in-law to forgive her straying (though loving) husband works, and the breach is mended, despite Stiva’s inability to change his ways significantly. Anna’s visit, however, gravely disrupts the life of Kitty, Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, who has hopes of marrying Count Vronsky, a young army officer. Seeing Anna so utterly captivate Vronsky at the ball where she imagined he would propose to her sends Kitty into despair and illness. Before she learns the truth about Vronsky, Kitty turns down a proposal from the progressive farmer and landowner Levin, but that is not the final word for them. Wright’s film handles this counterpoint tale of Kitty and Levin’s redeeming love with extraordinary charm and sincerity. I won’t spoil it with more details, but it unfolds through fine, restrained performances by Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson in particular captures Levin’s mysterious mixture of inner quiet and turmoil.
The rough outlines of Anna Karenina’s tragedy are well known, part of worldwide culture, but for any who are coming to her story for the first time, there are spoilers ahead…
As Anna, Keira Knightley must demonstrate layer upon layer of fragility as the character suffers a series of ruptures in all the major relationships of her life. Knightley does have such acting resources, which she showed in The Duchess (2008; a story with many parallels and some important divergences from the present one) and in the somber fable Never Let Me Go (2010). But because the actress herself is so young, it is hard for her to show some of the nuances of Anna’s vulnerability and pain as she is compared to the young princess Vronsky’s mother intends for him. It is not only that she may be supplanted, but that she feels time slipping past her. Despite her undeniable part in creating the fatal string of events, the word “inexorable” seems the only one to describe the cascading breakages–with her husband, lover, son, and her friends in Petersburg “society”–that leave Anna unconnected, like a beautiful marionette with all its strings cut. Although Vronsky and Anna were both judged by society for their behavior, their positions were never equivalent. Vronsky risked some things, notably in his career, but Anna risked everything. He could escape the situation by marrying, but she had no escape, she thought, but the one she chose. In the end, she allowed herself to break like a fallen bisque doll.
I called “breakage” a motif in the film rather than simply a theme because Wright uses it repeatedly in both sights and sounds. I’ve never heard so many loud, sudden noises in a film that didn’t involve explosions or car crashes! Everyone seems poised to be startled (including the audience). The rapid scene changes and dislocations between stage and “real world” reinforce sudden revelations in the plot or strong emotions. For example, when Anna flatly tells her husband that he is not mistaken, that she indeed loves Vronsky and is his mistress, the carriage they are riding in registers Karenin’s shock with a screech. Often, Anna’s voice seems to catch in her throat and she draws in breath audibly. Her gasp becomes a scream when Vronsky’s horse suddenly falls, in one of the most brilliant bits of stage business–and filmmaking–I’ve ever seen. (We know this is coming, but the surprise and horror are triggered as if we didn’t.) Vronsky is thrown clear but the horse’s back is broken, and the unbearable shot rings out. Vronsky has lost one of beings he loves most, and the foreshadowing of irreparable brokenness is complete.
Wright’s film made me see Tolstoy’s great domestic novel as an especially poignant study in entropy, the tendency of the universe to increase in disorder: How easy it is for a horse and rider to fall, for a bone to break, or for a marriage to fail. Mending, when it is even possible, requires tremendous energy and calls forth humility and steadfast qualities, especially love, loyalty, and forgiveness. Without them, the din of heartbreak can be deafening.