Anna Karenina

All her world's a stage
Joe Wright
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
The Setup: 
Russian woman has impetuous affair, is destroyed.

This is one of those things I figured I'd see sooner or later, but interest was raised when two of my friends, who are very literary and not easily impressed, raved about it. And it emerges as quite good, finding interesting ways to get around the dull straightforwardness of literary adaptations with a device that keeps things interesting and also illuminates the story and it's themes.

So it's Imperial Russia of 1874, announced on a stage curtain. The curtain rises, and there are a number of people on a theater stage, each a different person of the time: servants, townspeople, aristocrats, etc., which serves the purpose of a scene-setting montage in a regular film. We meet Jude Law as Karenin, some sort of government official, and his wife Anna, played by Keira Knightly. She is going on a train trip to Moscow. On the way, she meets Olivia Williams as some aristocrat whose son, Count Vronsky, meets her, and Anna, at the train. There has also been a horrible accident in which a worker has fallen under the wheels, and been disembowled.

This is all done moving by smoothly moving between obviously theatrical sets and more realistic movie sets, between model trains in model landscapes and realistic interiors. In one transition from office to restaurant, the workers remove office costumes to reveal server uniforms, musicians stroll through playing the soundtrack, and sets are turned around from office to restaurant on the other side: it's a scene change, like in a stage play. We'll talk about what it might mean thematically later, but the effect as you're watching is completely enchanting and delightful. It doesn't take you out of the story, it puts the story within a frame and context.

Meanwhile, themes and interconnections are being laid out. Anna's brother, played by Matthew Macfayden with a delightful fluffy mustache, has had a series of infidelities. Anna counsels his wife to forgive him, and we realize: if a man is unfaithful, his wife must forgive him, or she will be ruined. If a woman is unfaithful, she will be ruined. The movie sets up these parameters as how it is, without asking for a lot of hand-wringing or speechifying about how wrong it all is, and with the notable absence of Susan Sarandon. Throughout the movie is another relationship, of a man in love with a woman betrothed to someone else, who resists the temptation to infidelity. So the script has pared down the action, but preserved a lot of the thematic plot elements that reflect in interesting ways on our main plot.

Vronsky is extremely pretty, blond with bright blue eyes and looking every bit the ladykiller. At a dance in which he is supposed to hang all over a young thing, Anna's friend, he ignores her and dances passionately with Anna. She gets excited, and spins off toward a mirror, in which she sees the roar and billowing steam of an approaching train. If you have a clue of the ending of this story, you might see this as a trifle over the top, but it works well in casting Anna's sexual excitement as the unstoppable force of a train, and tying her excitement and the affair into a kind of fatalistic death drive. And don't forget her seeing the guy killed under the train at the beginning.

Soon Anna and Vronsky are having a passionate affair, and the movie doesn't shy away from making it about sexual excitement and passion. It doesn't explicitly say that Karenin is reserved, uptight and sexually boring, it just demonstrates it with his performance, while at the same time showing that he hasn't really done anything wrong. Again without obvious modern feminist revisionist messages that might make one roll one's eyes and feel patronized, it shows that Anna pays for acknowledging her own sexual desire, for not observing the social decorum, for demanding her own pleasure and happiness. When I read the novel, I hated Anna as a person, finding her to be a childish, impetuous brat, but here she remains completely comprehensible and sympathetic until the end, when everyone is losing their minds anyway.

So all the mechanics about the stage? On one level, it's just a device to keep things interesting. Lately I've been thinking more and more about movies that employ certain devices just as a way of keeping things interesting, like Pulp Fiction mixing up the chronology of the story, which doesn't necessarily add that much, but keeps the film interesting, and the audience engaged. Or the recent Starlet keeping certain character information secret as a way of increasing engagement. And I think the stage stuff here, on one level, simply helps to renew audience engagement and shake off the stodgy expectations one brings to literary adaptations. It also works thematically, as we are looking into the story through many stage-like frames: looking at a literary construction, looking back into the past, into a foreign culture, into a world with many unfamiliar rules. It also underscores that the problem with Anna's relationship is that she doesn't hide it, resulting in many scenes of the public looking at her, the way we are looking at them. And there's still another way that it works in a way that is difficult to pin down and describe, by giving the entire thing a moving cast of fatalistic existentialism, these people trapped in this little false world bound by the limits of a stage, never really able to get free, or even knowing that they are prisoners. Whosever idea it was, it was a stroke of genius.

That said, there are many plots to keep track of. The movie seems long. It seems longer than it actually is. The whole stage conceit smartly vanishes into the background as the emotions start coming to a head in the final act, so that we aren't distracted by it then. And while I think that screenwriter Tom Stoppard probably did the best job that could have been done of boiling the many plots down while preserving and highlighting the ways in which they reflect on and illuminate each other... uh, it seems long.

Still, a small complaint against a very ingenious and moving adaptation that does what it should: bring the action, emotions, themes and literary construction of the book into a film intact, and make it involving and engaging. Win!

Should you watch it: 

Probably of most interest to those who have read the novel or like literary adaptations, but you sure should.