Films: Anna Karenina

ADAPTING a book into a film is difficult. Adapting a classic over 800 pages in length is even harder. With more than a dozen adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina having already been created, Joe Wright has tried yet again to bring the Russian tome onto the big screen for a twenty-first century audience. Unfortunately, with the challenge of taking such a well-known and downright huge book and attempting to make it more widely known through the medium of cinema, Wright hasn’t quite hit the nail on the head, making the film more gratuitously beautiful than with any depth beyond how it looks.

Wright has attempted to create Anna Karenina in a more fantastical world than the cold Russian scenery of the book- setting it in a theatre is a small touch of filmic genius, but it does leave the audience with the awareness of knowing that it’s completely fictional. The wonderful thing about the novel is that it’s so honest; you genuinely believe the events are happening, and that these people are real. The film doesn’t have the same honesty. With a very Moulin Rouge introduction of the characters, it’s Keira Knightley’s chance to take a well known character and add a spin to it. And, credit to her, she rolls with it. An always very stony-faced actress, Knightley adds serenity and maturity to both Anna and her own acting prowess. However, bringing together director Wright and Knightley for the third time (having already worked together on Atonement and Pride and Prejudice) means this is a love letter to Knightley’s face. Wright loves reminding the audience of just how beautiful Keira Knightley is, regardless of whether it works or not.

Law himself is apt in the role of Karenina’s unloving husband, monkish in quality and sombre in performance. However, facing the role as The Other Man is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, the man who tempts Anna away from Alexei. First things first, Johnson’s Vronsky is blonde haired and moustached, and does not look the type to convince someone like Anna to become an adulteress; even in the book he is described as dark haired. Why they would cast someone (naturally dark haired) as blonde and American is beyond anyone. The chemistry between them is phenomenal however. This is something Wright knows how to play to his advantage – making the audience believe two people love each other passionately. Their first meeting and dance is hyper-sexual and frantic with little dialogue, something beautifully sexy to watch.

The lack of involvement with the secondary characters is a little disappointing. I found Kitty and Lenin’s friendship and eventual love affair to be charming and a little sad at times in the book, but it is harshly ignored in Wright’s adaptation, instead choosing the more luxurious Anna and Vronsky to focus on. I would have liked to have seen Kitty and Lenin expanded as characters a bit more, both separately and together.

As a film, it is certainly theatrical. One scene in particular stands out, as the famous racehorse scene is played, not outside like in the book, but rather inside the theatre. As the horses race around the auditorium, you’re faced with the challenge of having to accept that none of this is real. One of the best things about seeing a film is losing yourself in it, but with this move, Wright alienates his audience. It just doesn’t work. The novel is famous for its love story integrated with politics and issues of Russia at Tolstoy’s time, but Wright has wiped Anna Karenina of any value as a political stance, choosing instead to find out how pretty two people can look on camera at any time. It’s surprisingly shallow in this aspect.

Joe Wright is an interesting director – his films scream of grandeur, and are certainly Oscar worthy in terms of the technical aspects (this is one of the most visually stunning and innovative films of recent years), but they always lack a depth. With a classic such as Anna Karenina, there is a substance needed to make it a sincere watch. Wright may have not been the best person for such a job- maybe with someone a little more understated, this film could have been a triumph. That being said, whilst Wright’s Anna Karenina may not be a complete success, it is both bold and exciting, and a worthy title to add to the list of not quite perfect, but faithful in its own right, adaptations.