“There can be no peace for us…only misery….and the greatest happiness.”
I need to finally break down and read the book. Dostoevsky described Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina as “flawless as a work of art”. Faulkner described the novel as “the best ever written”. A poll of 125 contemporary authors published in 2007 in Time magazine declared Anna Karenina to be the “greatest novel ever written”.
Like most people, I imagine, I know the basic story of the title character. Aside from being a staple of literature courses for more than a century, the novel has been filmed for theatrical release or television no less than 13 times and was adapted as a Broadway musical. The story of the Russian heroine’s passions and the toll they take on her life were not a surprise when I saw the new film version of the story. Having that knowledge as an anchor was probably a good thing because I was a little confused at the beginning of the movie. Listening to the comments of my fellow audience members as we left the theater, I was not alone.
Tom Stoppard is brilliant writer who has received many awards for plays and screenplays such as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead; Arcadia; The Real Thing; and Shakespeare In Love. Adapting Tolstoy’s massive novel for film must have been a daunting undertaking. I am sure there will be awards for his efforts. His screenplay is outstanding. He gives full voice to the story lines of the other characters in the novel rather than choosing to focus exclusively on the tragedy of Anna. The story telling is linear. He and the director do a good job of telling the interwoven stories simultaneously.
The physical reality in which the action takes place is unlike anything I have ever seen. The closest analogy I can think of is the way the action moved in and out of paintings in Julie Taymor’s 2002 film Frida; about the life of the Mexican artist. Here, much, though not all, of the action appears to take place on, around, above, or in front of a stage. Yet the story is not presented as ‘a-play-within-a-play’. There is no convention that the characters are being portrayed. Also, the stage itself does not have a consistent physical reality as the actors open doors and are transported to other settings which are ‘real’. Once I accepted the conceit I found it less confusing, and it is interesting conceptually but, in the end, I found it more distracting than revealing. Perhaps I just didn’t “get it”.
The film is visually beautiful. The love scenes and dance scenes are very sensual. Much of the physical action is highly stylized. Simple acts such as walking through a room or changing one’s jacket are choreographed. The sets and costumes are everything one would hope for in a period drama.
The cast, led my Keira Knightley in the title role. is outstanding. In particular, I liked Jude Law as Anna’s husband; Karenin. I would not describe myself as a ‘Jude Law fan’ but he gives a wonderfully subtle performance in a role that would be very easy to do badly.
I am very glad I saw this movie and, when it becomes available online, I am sure I will watch it again. It is a big-budget movie of a well-known story with a very artistic sensibility and pedigree. I expect we’ll hear a lot about it when the awards season rolls around. I still can’t make up my mind whether I should describe it as “art” or “artsy”.