I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to write “I didn’t read the book” in my movie reviews, which I suspect has less to do with my literary credibility and more to do with the kinds of books Hollywood actually makes into movies these days. But Anna Karenina feels like a particularly embarrassing gap in my education. At some point, I suspect all of my English teachers must have got together and decided not to bother asking me to read Leo Tolstoy’s highly regarded masterpiece of Russian literature, about an ornate and complex theater that transforms around the story’s protagonists to give their infidelity melodrama a heightened sense of urgency and interconnectivity. What’s that? Hold on…
I have just been informed that the novel is considered a, quote, “pinnacle of realist fiction,” unquote. Never mind. I guess director Joe Wright just went completely insane.
But what delicious insanity this is, this Anna Karenina, a film whose whirligig orchestration feels more at home with Baz Luhrmann than the director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. According to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, the production was originally intended to be much more opulent and straightforward, but last minute budget woes forced Wright to get creative with his locations, restaging the production as a wet dream, or maybe more like a tidal wave, of theatrical artifice. The world of Wright’s Anna Karenina feels more akin to the Japanese puppet theater fabulousness of last year’s Bunraku than to the typical costume drama, and the director must be given credit for using his limitations as an excuse to stage some of the most elaborate visual storytelling in recent memory.
That artifice, unfortunately, sometimes detracts from the actual story being told in Anna Karenina, which stars Keira Knightley as the title character, an aristocrat who enters into an extra-marital affair with Vronsky, a young military officer played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Their love, or at least all-encompassing lust, challenges conventional notions of romance – and even extra-marital affairs, flaunting it as they do across town – jeopardizing their happiness and having unexpected consequences for the expansive supporting cast, including Anna’s husband, played by Jude Law in a particularly powerful performance, her brother, played by Matthew MacFadyen, and their extended family, played by lots and lots of different actors.
There’s a lot of subtext at play here, which might very well have been text if the mechanics of the ever-shifting set design didn’t attract so much attention. The fall of the Russian aristocracy, the simultaneous heroism and tragedy of shirking social norms, and the truly savory emotional turmoil these characters endure throughout Anna Karenina are articulated, and sometimes even evoked with great strength by the fantastical machinations of the production, but the overpowering momentum perpetuated by this virtuoso camerawork makes it difficult to focus on anything else. The film has a sudden shift into the direction of quasi-realism halfway through the picture, but it’s hazily motivated, perhaps indicative of the genuineness of Anna’s love affair, but not readily apparent on first viewing.
I suspect that any production of Anna Karenina, with a story this sweeping and broadly populated with supporting characters, would be an awful lot to digest in one sitting, and god knows Wright’s gesticulations will make you want to watch it again and again, if only to marvel at its overwhelming intricacy. Perhaps it’s a cunning ruse to sucker us in with immediate artifice so that the deeper meaning can sink in gradually over repeated viewings. If so, it’s a daring risk, and I commend the filmmakers for taking it. Anna Karenina feels like no other classic literary adaptation I’ve ever seen. Whether or not that was a wise move is a matter for some debate.
You can follow William Bibbiani on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani, if the train's on time.