|Keira Knightley stars in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina|
If you’d asked me last year which contemporary director I’d most like to see adapt Anna Karenina, I would have named Joe Wright. David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies and directed the majestic BBC miniseries of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, would have been a close second. Yates has a magical feel for the epic scope of Victorian fiction – a quality he excavates out of J.K. Rowling’s already Dickensian material – and perhaps more than any other recent director he has succeeded in transmuting the addictive pacing of the capacious novel form to the seriality of television and the film series, capturing the velocity of the novels rather than trying to outdo them. But it’s Wright’s films that distill and remediate the pleasure that novel reading can give us. In Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), the experience of reading as both subject and visual motif suffuses the movies with a gently expressive awareness of the translation from page to screen.
|Saoirse Ronan in Atonement|
Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) is, in fact, a mess. But it’s the kind of mess probably only Wright could make – he takes the meta-concept to disastrously unrestrained limits. Tolstoy’s 1877 novel is about the Russian aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of the prominent statesman Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who falls in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young cavalry officer. Anna and Vronsky are both deepened by their feelings for each other, but in leaving her husband for her lover Anna violates the Russian Orthodox social codes of nineteenth century Russia and becomes an outcast – in the novel’s famous ending, she throws herself under a train. Wright’s concept is that Russian high society was like a theater, an idea he takes literally by using an empty theater as the set for the film, with the actors at times like ballet dancers, other times like the characters of an opera, interacting in a style that reduces Tolstoy’s realism – the history, the politics, the complex web of social interactions and conventions through which people move as they talk, dine, attend the opera and fall in love – to meta-theatrical notation.
|Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Alicia Vikander|
The concept was probably doomed from the start, but it’s not an unintelligent film, or an unfeeling one. There’s a moment when an image of the steam circuit of the Moscow-St. Petersburg train gives over to the sensuous paper and ink of Anna’s book, the camera gliding over the confusion of Russian characters before the film cuts to Knightley's face, still flushed from the ballroom (she holds a penknife to her cheeks just to cool them) – it caught up some of that febrile quality I remember from the scene as Tolstoy wrote it. But Wright’s signature image of books and text is encrypted by the phony operatic pretenses of the movie’s style. The train becomes a toy train. A scene of lovemaking fades into a prescription for morphine and then flashes back to the steam circuit of the train. Montages of Knightley and Taylor-Johnson’s naked bodies entwined like dancers’, as inescapably silly and self-serious as Alain Resnais’ opening images of bodies in Hiroshima Mon Amour, flash against the screen. The Russian aristocracy may have lived for style, but in Wright’s movie, style becomes its own object, indolent and over-indulged. By reading Tolstoy’s drama as meta-drama, he winds up with melodrama.
Ironically, in embracing the melodrama Tolstoy sought to expunge from his novel, Wright builds his movie around the archaic romance plot Tolstoy reconceived for modern realism – one of his great achievements – without realizing that it’s the realist conventions that make the love story truly original. What he winds up with is Anna Karenina as the woozy transcendent romance many people want it to be, rather than Anna Karenina as the capacious realist novel of social mores that it is. (As for romance, Michael Hoffman’s radiant picture about Tolstoy’s last days, The Last Station, has far more to say about the novel’s questions of love and appetite, body and soul, than this adaptation.) In gearing up for spectacle and decadence instead of realism, Wright may have been trying to make a big movie, but he’s only succeeded in making a very small one.
|A scene from Anna Karenina (2012)|
Knightley is eloquent playing romantic heroines because her acting process is one of constant self-discovery. (It’s also what made her so spellbinding to watch in Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic comedy, where her sense of discovery expressed the ethic of the material – you could see her both fighting her way into the role and surprising herself by what she could bring to the surface.) As Anna, a woman as impulsive as she is consummately elegant,she shows five different expressions flash across her face before she chooses the words she is going to say. Knightley thrives in these roles where the cerebral and the erotic are at cross-purposes, where intellect and wit meet sexual surrender, because she’s an actress whose own intelligence and intuition spar on screen. Her performance in Anna Karenina is so powerful that it commands around her the movie that isn’t there.
Unfortunately, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a wash as Count Vronsky. Taylor-Johnson is a plastic figurine, as incapable of exciting desire as he is of playing it. You can’t imagine why Anna would risk her life for this boyish doodle. Knightley might as well be playing her scenes with an off-screen prompter – she’s reacting to an invisible performance. On the other hand, it’s in her scenes opposite Jude Law’s Karenin that the movie is at its most exciting and its most whole. Law doesn’t just play Karenin’s clipped repression – he can simultaneously show us what this man has to hide: he’s like a glass sculpture with a tempest rattling inside. His line readings are mesmerizing – he gives Karenin a brittle murmur, oddly punctuated after every fourth word or so as though he is pausing to authenticate the certainty of each utterance. Law’s Karenin is a man who is only capable of speaking the words he is certain of; even his questions come across as statements. Yet Law suggests the unexplored inner life of a man whose statements are shaded by the questions he doesn’t know how to ask. It’s a subtle, affecting performance.
|Jude Law and Keira Knightley|
Ian MacEwan closed his novel Atonement with an epilogue narrated by the elder Briony that reveals that the novel we are reading is one that she has written, her last attempt to redeem herself from the past before she loses her memory to dementia. MacEwan’s meta-literary conceit both wittily and elegiacally turns a novel already obsessed with the ways in which lives take on the substance of literature into a kind of postmodern Möbius strip. Wright conserves the power of MacEwan’s ending by deploying his own bit of comparable movie magic for his closing scene: Vanessa Redgrave plays the elder Briony in a present day television interview about her recently published novel in the most riveting five minute performance I’ve ever seen in a movie. MacEwan’s epilogue is thirty-or-so pages and it follows Briony through doctors’ appointments, the archives of the British Library and a birthday party, but there’s not a single emotional note in that entire section that Redgrave fails to compress into her scene. In an ending that is about the way art allows us to come to terms with senseless death precisely because it refuses to anaesthetize us against it, Redgrave’s performance is a remarkable gift, a return on our faith both in the magic of fiction and the magic of film. That’s the kind of sublimely understated meta-cinema I cherish in Wright. Anna Karenina may be a gifted director’s failure, one that suggests the faint outline of the movie Wright might have made imprinted within it. But that doesn’t make it sting any less.
– Amanda Shubert is a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.