Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley in the lead, completes 9 years of its release today. Arguably one of the most original adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, here’s a look at what made the film stand out.
Writer Helen Garner had famously said about Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that, “by its very nature, was not adaptable.” The novel is an exhaustive analysis of society that meanders from character to character, taking an incisive look at the limits of morality and its subjectivity. But beyond the gigantic scope and structural fragility of the text, she argued Tolstoy’s own narrative voice would intervene in any screen adaptation.
Many filmmakers, including Clarence Brown, Julien Duvivier and Bernard Rose, have attempted to translate the text for the screen. But it is Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), that is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, audacious take on Leo Tolstoy’s 19th century Russian novel on the artifice of aristocracy, the double-standards of society, adultery and self-searching. Tolstoy’s romantic odyssey centred on the conflict of the traditional, patriarchal social mores bolstering the aristocracy and the liberal “Western” values.
Previous adaptations of the Tolstoy classic have remained steadfastly faithful to the text, producing one regurgitation after another of his sepia-coloured world. Joe Wright’s version was set inside the confines of a proscenium stage —the theatrum mundi — thereby condensing the scope of the expansive novel inside a restrictive space. Filming the movie inside a decrepit theatre was a “fantastic concept, given the theatricality of high society in St Petersburg and Moscow at the time," production designer Sarah Greenwood has said in an interview with The Guardian.
This deliberate artificial setting is also important thematically because it mirrors’ the protagonists’ claustrophobic state. Anna (Keira Knightley) is a married woman, and thus, her clandestine relationship with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), makes her a “transgressor.” It is fascinating to observe then, that every time Anna and Vronsky are intimate, they are either in the light of day or in a daydream sequence, perhaps indicating that, in their dalliance, they manage to tear apart the artifice of the stage.
Wright’s film also expends enough screen time for Konstantin Levin (Alfred Molina), another key character in the novel. It is through Levin’s story that the perspective of the world outside percolates into the narrative bound by dazzling, anachronistic props.
The theatricality of Anna Karenina is exhibited through swift spatial transformations — a bureaucrat’s office is metamorphosed into the razzmatazzy Hermitage, and clerks into waiters; dramatic scenes effortlessly glide into dance performances as the backdrops shuttle between St. Petersburg and Moscow indicating the change in scene. The film also has an elaborate race-course scene which is filmed inside the auditorium with horses parading inside. It’s a self-aware spectacle film that eschews the novel’s sweeping tragic ethos for light-hearted pomp and show. The death that sets the tone for the novel is rendered in opulence. Levin’s suicidal ideations are conveniently omitted too. This renders the film into a comedy-drama space that no previous adaptations have deigned to experiment with.
Anna Karenina is not a movie for Tolstoy patrons. It is reductive in its approach to the story, and the ambiguities of the titular character. Yet, Wright’s film is a testament to a director’s conviction in his own craft and in the audience’s ability to cast out the weight of expectations.