I’ll be honest, I would not have put this film on a must-see list but on a weekend where there was not a lot of obvious options, this film got its chance.
Like pretty much all film versions, you cannot and should not expect the film to be the same as your mental interpretation of the book. And the book has a lot of loyal followers. This a book often touted as the greatest book ever. I’ll be honest, this film is not the greatest film ever and it won’t trouble many lists. It has its flaws but it is a brave, sumptuous and interesting interpretation, thanks in large part to Tom Stoppard’s script.
The film is frequently set in a theatre, where the rich, spoilt, constrained and corrupt aristocracy are the spectacle, the main event whilst the servants are behind the scenes, preparing, organising and making sure that everything works for the stars of the show. The setting also allows for some very interesting cuts and fades between scenes. And the staging is wonderful, clever and lush, even allowing for the horse race to be set across the stage and the cinematography takes the viewer into the scenes, enveloped in the rich fabrics and colours of the film.
The acting of the two main characters Anna [played by the beautiful but peculiarly unattractive Keira Knightley] and Count Vronsky [Aaron Taylor-Johnson] lets the film down badly. They are staid and dull, even in passion, perhaps constrained by the mores of the society but perhaps as well, constrained by their ability. Towards the end of the film, as we reach its tragic denouement [how I love the word “denouement”], Knightley does start to act and you finally begin to feel some sympathy for her and the position she finds herself in. Vronksy is a shallow bore but fails to show any more than that even once he is in the position of supporting Anna through the crisis of separation and divorce and as her mental state begins to crumble and as his own sacrifices begin to impact on their lives.
Jude Law is almost unrecognisable as Karenin, Anna’s husband and the loyal politician and his well contained fury and shame are well portrayed. He is often referred to as a saint, a stoic man working hard for the greater good of Russia whilst being betrayed by Anna. Of course, he can be seen as betraying her for the world of politics and statesmanship, a world where he is more at home. The role of motherhood and homemaking is not one that Anna seems particularly suited for.
Matthew Macfadyen plays Stiva, Anna’s philandering brother in an almost comic role, full of knowing winks and giving you the idea that you accept his infidelities more than you do Anna’s, simply because he is a more roguish character. Of course, this is the gendered problem of unfaithfulness. A female rogue was not acceptable in 19th century Russia and nor do I feel that it is particularly welcomed in modern European society, whereas it’s not as condemned when the man indulges.
The secondary plot running through the film is that of Konstantin Levin, Stiva’s old friend who loves Kitty, the young debutante in Moscow society and Stiva’s sister in law. Although a crucial part of the book, it receives less attention here and carries less weight and importance. Konstantin’s happy life as simple [but well off] country landowners with a great sympathy to the recently freed peasantry is not given enough coverage to allow it to form a satisfactory juxtaposition to the pampered life of the city dwelling aristocracy. The country
idyll of a common peasantry, everyone together merry at their toil was one which Tolstoy seems to have had some sympathy for.
As well as the clever use of the theatre, there seems to be some use of impressionist art. There is obviously plenty of Degas in the scenes linked to the dancing and theatre but the lighting is reminiscent of these works too. There is one scene in particular where Joe Wright [who has also directed Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement] seems to reconstruct Monet’s series of paintings of the woman with the parasol.
In summary then, go and see this film for a wonderful piece of cinematography, film structure and a brave interpretation but don’t go and see it for a faithful retelling of one of literature’s greatest classics. Just read the book and imagine it for yourself.