The only (highly questionable) credential I have as a film critic—apart from having spent an inordinate amount of my life consuming and thinking about movies—is a degree in literature. One might expect, therefore, that what I'd value most in literary adaptations is faithfulness to the text—but one would be wrong. As even the most casual student of either art form knows, slavish film adaptations of great novels are almost always dull and dire things. Attempting to carefully convert greatness from one form to another never works, because the true artists in any medium are those who have figured out how to do what can only be done in that medium. You can't faithfully film a novel any more than you could faithfully paint a poem: everything that matters would be lost in the translation.
Let us celebrate, then, director Joe Wright, who not only understands this fundamental truth but also embraces it with a fearless audacity. His newest film, Anna Karenina, is the third literary adaptation he has undertaken, after Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2008). Each of the earlier two films was relatively faithful to the plot of its novel, but each understood that film is a visual medium first and foremost: Wright cheerfully jettisoned everything that couldn't possibly work on film—like the novel Atonement’s use of free-indirect discourse to reveal the internal lives of its characters—and found ways to visually evoke the essence, if not entirely the content, of the stories. (For the record, I liked, but didn't love, Atonement. However, I will happily risk the enmity of the Austen faithful by admitting that I find more of the book's romance and vivacity in Wright's version of Pride and Prejudice than in the more faithful—and more widely beloved—BBC mini-series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.)
Wright doesn't film books: he makes movies. His Anna Karenina is the least faithful, most audaciously loose adaption of a literary classic Wright has undertaken so far. It's not Tolstoy's sprawling, staggering epic: no film version could be. What Wright has made instead—from a fabulously concise screenplay by Tom Stoppard— is something clever, creative, and often breathtakingly beautiful: it's not perfect, and it might offend the literary purists, but it can stand proudly on its own as one of the best films of the year.
All three of Wright's adaptations have something else in common: they all feature Keira Knightley, and this is turning into one of those director-star collaborations for the ages: no other director has shown such faith that Knightley can be more than a pretty face, and she has rewarded that faith with some truly impressive and complex performances. Here she assumes the title role as one of literature's great characters, the bold and bored wife of Karenin (Jude Law), an idealistic-but-dull Russian official. As the movie opens, Anna travels by foreshadowy train from her home in St. Petersburg to Moscow, to convince her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive her philandering husband, Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, Wright's Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, demonstrating some comedic chops here.) It is in Moscow that Anna falls under the thrall of Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a handsome young suitor of Anna's innocent niece Kitty (Alicia Vikander). And so begins one of the most famous (and doomed) love affairs of all time, and an escalating scandal as Anna increasingly flouts her marriage vows and the confining conventions of her society.
Anna Karenina is less the story of a love affair than it is the story of a scandal, and the genius of this film version is Joe Wright's decision to emphasize the public scrutiny and strictly defined roles of these doomed characters by setting the bulk of the story in a dilapidated theater: the action takes place beneath a proscenium arch, as characters pass backstage through scaffolding to transition from one scene to the next, and gorgeously painted scenery shifts and reassembles around the necessities of the plot.
It would be difficult to overstate the brilliance of this approach, which accomplishes a number of things simultaneously. From an economic perspective—and this was apparently the original impetus—it saves a lot of money, maintaining the scope and scale of Tolstoy's world without spending a fortune on location shoots and set design. But it also achieves an impressive economy of time: when you think of all the over-bloated 19th century epics we've watched, full of endless travel scenes and establishing shots, it is easy to appreciate how efficiently Wright cuts hours from Tolstoy's story by transitioning characters in a blink of an eye from a ballroom to a barroom, from a racetrack to a frozen lake. Thematically, as I said above, it perfectly suits the milieu of Anna Karenina, in which lives are lived on the public stage of society, and to step out of their pre-defined roles is to invite scrutiny, gossip, and ruin.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the artistic purpose, and from this perspective it is pure movie magic. Other films have employed this kind of theatrical device—both Lars von Trier's Dogville and Louis Malle and Andre Gregory's Vanya on 42nd Street come to mind—but here Wright deftly denies the static nature of a stage even as he takes advantage of its self-conscious artifice to deliver intimacy and operatic intensity. His camera swirls and rushes through the scenery with energy and verve, and confined spaces open magically into magnificent vistas in a way that is dazzling and intoxicating. Scenes are choreographed with a whimsical, light-opera feel, as offices full of bureaucratic clerks stamp their forms in balletic unison, and ballrooms of dancers suddenly freeze so Anna and Vronsky can dance through their midst. Characters never quite do burst into song, but somehow if they did you would be neither surprised nor put off.
The exquisite production design is by frequent Wright collaborator Sarah Greenwood. (Remember that name, because you're going to be hearing it at the Oscars.) And this remarkably fresh visual approach would be enough by itself to make Anna Karenina one of the year's most interesting films, but none of it would work so well without the tight, efficient screenplay by Stoppard. Like nearly ever previous adapter of this material, Stoppard realizes that most of us who read the mammoth novel are in it for the love affair, and grow bored with the endless discussions of agrarian reform and sociopolitical theory, and so out the latter go: his screenplay is more personal: it is about love, and about the duty to one's own emotions versus the duty to society.
Unlike nearly every previous adaptation, however, Stoppard's script makes adequate (if not quite equal) room for Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), an intellectual, idealistic landowner in love with Kitty. The novel Anna Karenina is as much Levin's story as Anna's, and Levin serves as the mouthpiece for Tolstoy's theories about Russia's political climate in the 1870s. Stoppard includes a little of this, but he mostly retains Levin and Kitty's story as a contrast to the triangle between Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky: Levin's faithful love for the pious Kitty exists in counterpoint to the surprisingly dark morality tale being played out in the cities. (Cleverly, Levin's farm is depicted on real sets, without the conscious artifice, implying that his world—and his love—are far more real than the puppet show being played out in society.)
I suspect that many viewers—whether they have read the novel or not—may be put off by Wright and Stoppard's decision to present Anna and Vronsky's relationship less as a tragic love story and more as a cautionary tale about the selfish imprudence of passion. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is arguably miscast as Vronsky: with his youthful placidity and his absurd pencil-thin mustache, it is hard to fathom why Anna would destroy her comfortable life with her husband just to be with him. But, as Anna says, "You can't ask why about love": most of us have experienced these sorts of inexplicable passions—with their sometimes terrible consequences—and, if we haven't, we know someone who has and have despaired of their baffling choices. (Besides, I find Vronsky nearly as insipid on the page as I do in the film.) But the point of Anna Karenina is not to tell a heart-breaking love story, but to explore the ramifications of such a dangerous obsession in this carefully ordered society.
The more romantically minded audience members may, too, take issue with Knightley's brave, complicated performance, which explores the darker sides of the character. Her Anna is not entirely—or even frequently—sympathetic, and as the film proceeds Knightley increasingly plays against her own delicate, angelic looks to tease out the selfish, irrational, utterly careless and conscienceless aspects of Anna's obsession. She is, arguably, the story's villain here, not its victim. Similarly, Wright and Stoppard find sympathy for Karenin, who in previous adaptations has too often been portrayed as a detestable blocking figure. Jude Law—who, not too many years ago, might have played Vronsky—is fantastic as the somewhat saintly, somewhat awful man, whose only real crime is to be rather unlovable and wholly incapable of the sort of passion that Anna desires.
As I've said, the conscious theatricality, the truncation of the story, and the darker interpretation of its meaning may offend purists and romantics alike, but to me that is the value of this version of Anna Karenina. Wright and Stoppard could easily have mounted a straight telling of Tolstoy's story as a tragic tale of thwarted love—there have been no fewer than 10 previous film versions, and countless adaptations for stage and television—but they have chosen instead to do something fresh and different. This version of Anna Karenina is about a woman in love with the idea of love, one who craves passion for the sake of passion. The stagey, operatic grandeur of Wright's film captures wonderfully both the genuine rapture and the dangerous illusion of such intense, flawed desire, and provides us an exhilarating, wholly original experience even as it hurtles towards its familiar, inevitable conclusion.