Anna Karenina is a story about love, and its place in society. It’s also a whirling, passionate film that picks up the phrase “all the world’s a stage” and runs with it. This is period drama stripped of the confines of realism. Is it perfect? No. But it is theatre, bold and striking, a little bit funny, and in a nutshell, achingly beautiful.
I’ve never read the famous novel of which the film is a stripped and streamlined interpretation. I have dallied with the Russian masters on occasion, but though I recognise the elegance of their prose, my reaction has always been that of The Guard: they take way too long in getting to the point. That is not the case here. If anything, you could say the film climaxes too early, in a fraught, heart-expanding sequence that brings me close to tears just thinking about it. But the main point is that Anna Karenina does not drag, which, considering that it’s a period drama, is nothing short of miraculous.
The reason for this is a brilliant union of technical talent and theatrical artifice. The conceit of Anna Karenina is that it’s shot largely on a single set. The lives of the characters play out within a giant ornate theatre, a setting that reflects the place drama has as the lifeblood of Russian aristocratic society. Their world is, symbolically and literally, a stage. It is a cramped world, a universe where multiple places exist within the same space. As characters move from scene to scene, the world changes shape around them. This practised flow of walls and windows sets a pace for the film, holding attention as a strong current might hold a swimmer: with subtle, unshakeable force.
Though of course, such smooth sailing requires a sharp cutter, so kudos is due to editor Melanie Oliver. Meanwhile, for the artifice itself, we have to thank director Joe Wright. The last-minute nature of his decision, to cast Tom Stoppard’s script in this theatrical mould, makes its silky execution all the more impressive. Anna Karenina is also an audio treat, with Dario Marianelli’s score accompanying the camera in a courtly dance through the drama.
But most importantly, this is a film of beautiful camerawork. To be frank, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey has had a blinding couple of years, his last two films being the haunting We Need To Talk About Kevin and the riotous joy of Avengers. The visuals in these films were practised, inventive and beautiful, and there is no difference here. Whether capturing the golden rolls of a cornfield in summer, or the depths of a lovers’ passion, McGarvey’s evocative imagery is the heart of Anna Karenina.
As for the story, the film proves to be a discussion about love from multiple viewpoints. Karenina herself (Keira Knightley) feels love to be a force of passion, something that is as much agony as pleasure. Her lover, the charming (and somewhat smouldering) Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) feels the same way. This whirlwind however is contrasted with another form of love, held by Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) for Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander). This is a quieter, but perhaps deeper emotion altogether. Arranged around these two pairings are Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) for whom love is a spiritual, dutiful thing and Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) who treats love and passion as separate, but equally necessary. As such he is married, but likes to supplement this with some more ‘freshly baked’ experiences.
This story is well written. Stoppard’s dialogue is a mixed bag, but of style more than quality. The characters mostly speak in the mannered form you would expect from period drama, but now and again he flavours a scene with a dose of natural frankness. It’s a little jarring, but, at the same time, keeps the film from overdosing on highbrow. The story’s structure, as I alluded to earlier, is perhaps a little lacking. There’s a slight issue where Anna Karenina’s plot dominates the film’s second half, what with Levin and Kitty’s arc finishing about halfway through it. But to be honest, that’s only to be expected. The film is named after Karenina after all. Also the second half has much to like in it, including some very sharp commentary, the best of which is a single sentence summarising Karenina’s ostracism. She is isolated by society, not because she broke a law, but because she broke unwritten rules. It is a dark piece of wit that skewers an unpalatable aspect of human society and custom.
In comparison then to the writing and visuals, it is the acting that left the least impact. This is fairly odd: normally actors are the face of a film, the gilt on a visual foundation, but here it is the visuals that gild and the performances that support. Knightley and Law give fairly broad performances, strong but without much subtlety. Gleeson and Vikander are more noticeable: it is their chemistry that makes the aforementioned climactic scene such a delight. But still, the performances are not Karenina’s selling point.
Rather, Anna Karenina is a film of visual beauty, theatrical flow and endless movement. It is an immersive rush of an experience, a multifaceted exploration of love, and a tragic commentary on how society constrains the expression of pure feelings, while enforcing unhappy stability. It is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2012. But this greatness is not elitist. Anna Karenina may be built on highbrow source material, but the film wraps this up in a slick package, easy on modern eyes, resulting in a film that is intelligent but also incredibly immersive.