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Removing Leo Tolstoy: Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

Removing Leo Tolstoy: Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

by Binoy Kampmark
February 12, 2013

Would you throw your self under a train for this? This curiously Downton Abbey styled adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina by Joe Wright suggests that this would be far fetched and needless in more ways than one. The man our heroine does it for seems wet behind the ears, and everything else. But here, the Bambi-eyed Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bland, unconvincing prop of a man yearns to be with the married and dewy-eyed Anna (Keira Knightley). The Victorian stiffness is repaid in kind by a monastically disposed Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who has other things on his mind. He becomes a wounded man of society – the great man of Russia – finding the moral coda he holds dear violated.

There in lies the challenge. One is already burdened by working a classic for an audience in terms of film location and delivery, and so alternative ways are sought to portray familiar themes. One thinks of Bernard Rose and his efforts in bringing, for instance, The Kreutzer Sonata to California or Master and Man to Colorado in Boxing Day. Here, Wright uses a Russian Theatre set in the 1870s. Within this highly stylised theatre setting, the tales of convention, morality and desire are told. It is a place where the seduction takes place, the wooing, and matters of state business conducted with cold precision. Then there are the side shots – the rejection of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) by Kitty, and his escape to modest agrarian purity.

If there is praise to be found, it is the fact that Tom Stoppard’s versatile hand played a part. Extracting a workable screenplay from a massive tome of literature is no mean feat. So it is with little surprise that it is love, and more love, that is the focus of the film. It is either awkward and slightly constipated (Levin and Kitty), destructive and rule-breaking (Anna and Vronsky), stilted and societal (Karenin) or casually sexual (Oblonsky). Always, the brave if foolish woman must provide the blood insurance for the double standards a society demands. The horny chaps tend to be the first ones to be forgiven for their virile excesses.

Knightly is delectable, a sumptuous flower between scenes, and her Anna finds suitable psychological pitch. She loves, she grieves and she rages. That said, even between allusions to moving trains, tracks and impending death, she does not make a convincing case why she might have taken off with Vronsky, or improve upon her depiction of the progressive Duchess of Devonshire in Saul Dibb’s The Duchess (2008). Her death is immaculate and unconvincing – as is everything in terms of this romance. Vronsky is no hunk, though he makes some kind of stab at being a cad. Where on earth is the Slavic sense of doom, the gravy rich pondering over life’s inner sense of the tragic? This is a cinematic dish served cold, and for that reason, is excised of its Tolstoyan flavour.

In 1951, Lionel Trilling considered the weighty legacy of Anna Karenina and proposed that Tolstoy’s parading of objectivity was, in fact, a suggestion that we accept his world as real only in so far as we wanted it to be. “We so happily give our assent to what Tolstoy shows us and so willingly call it reality because we have something to gain from it being reality.” The performance seen here makes a valiant effort at gaining from this reality, but stumbles in forming its human characters. Complexity is sacrificed. This is Anna Karenina without Tolstoy and might well take its place amongst the latest Victorian-styled productions.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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