Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley): a cut off promotional shot (not in film) of her in a long red robe, filmed from afar (as described); she’s fulfilled the promise of Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of Carribean (2003), The Duchess (2008)
Friends, readers, if you see one extravaganza of costume, virtuouso acting, stunning shots, from a brilliant book, let it be Wright and Stoppard’s Anna Karenina. Stoppard and Joe Wright have translated Tolstoi’s masterpiece into a filmic masterpiece which uses a theater combined with far shots on location (contradicting what is led into and out of) and substituting stylized comedy and at times operatic rushes of scenes for Tolstoi’s realism, with a great deal of effective help from Keira Knightley (she ought to get the Oscar for this), Matthew MacFayden (is there a type left he has not played), Jude Law as Karenin (another actor who escapes typing and as the unimaginative yet intense and idealistic husband searingly hurt is not recognizable)
and luxury casting for minor parts (Olivia Williams as Stiva’s mother; Shirley Henderson as a very nasty woman at the opera who humiliates Anna for sitting by her in a box; Michelle Dockery as the frozen friend who will be seen with Anna anywhere, everywhere because society is all:
What made it was Stoppard’s use of the theater (to be expected from Stopppard, given his oeuvre) together with Wright’s Lawrentian sexual drenching and effective juxtapositions of crashing and still scenes. The film opens in a theater, ends in one; at the same time into the theater (which is again and again redone) is projected the most realistic of happening, people, animals events and they are used with striking insight and effect. Sometimes the characters are wandering about in a deep backstage where they meet other characters and suddenly the scene switches to a real house, or field, or street or the train. Then inside the theater Anna walks into a blended home environment and is asking permission of Karenin to visit her incorrigibly promiscuous brother, Stiva, in order to persuade Stiva’s many-timed pregnant wife, Dolly –
After Anna goes to live with Vronsky, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), says she wants to invite Anna to hers, but she does not — utterly conventional and kindly throughout and this a normative moment, common film-making
– to forgive him. Anna then walks out into a train, powerful real, a trip where she meets Vronsky’s mother. This first one ends suddenly someone throwing himself or be mistake getting caught under; we return periodically to the train station and of course end there is a terrifyingly held moment as she stands there just before the final leap.
Here’s a six-minute clip offered by Wright online to show his film: his theatrically staged sequence.
The film’s worst flaw is seen here: the wooden acting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky until about half-way through the film when he seems to become an electrifying center of whole scenes — as when he drives a horse across a stage too roughly, the poor animal falls with a crash, moans, groans, and as Vronsky T-J shoots the beast. The character is so real in the novel, so fully examined, as a shallow man whom Anna imagines to be this brilliantly deep feelingly true person. In Tolstoi, Anna’s is a bitterly ironic illusion. It’s Karenin who has the depth of feeling. After conquest, Vronsky grows bored and Anna becomes frantic with her losses.
Perhaps the film-makers thought this paradigm nowadays would not be liked so they made Vronsky really in love. He is driven to throw Anna off when the society’s treatment of them and her suspicions of him because he is accepted and goes about with beautiful women still tear them apart. T-J may have been picked because he is nearly as beautiful as Rupert Freud (he was that type). Anna pretends not to care about the ostracizing, but she does. She misses her son. Where T-J is effective is after Anna (as it were) goes mad and he can match her inner wildness with a distraught aggressive sensuality.
So as the movie progressed, the whole experience of film-making may have engulfed T-J and he came up to it. He did what he needed to do in the scene where he furiously and meanly drives a horse to the ground and then shoots it to death. This is the most savage scene in the film and montage, placement, are intended in filmic ways to make a woman stop and think before marrying a man such as Vronsky.
Keira Knightley has become a great actress and Matthew MacFayden has again proved himself one as insouciant comic Oblonsky. She is actually somewhat heavier than she used to be. She now has upper arms. Her wardrobe is just spectacular. More than that it’s aesthetically right in so many scenes.
One stands out in my mind: she’s in a scarlet red robe standing by a window, everything else dusk or grey and white light. She’s smoking and staring out the window. Vronsky In some of the traumatic scenes beginning in the last quarter her face begins to take on a new look. You would not recognize her. I long to see it again the way I did her in The Duchess. I’d say The Duchess (based on Amanda Foreman’s take on the life of Georgiana Spencer) was self consciously feminist and that came out of the material adapted.
Here the material might be called proto-feminist: the point is made repeatedly that Anna cannot escape Karenin, she cannot take her child; it is she who is ostracized, she who is powerless to act freely. An emphatic contrast is
made between her brother, Oblonsky whose casual adultery with a governess (of course fired) the film opens with; she visits his wife, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) and with no trouble really gets Dolly to forgive him, and by the end of the film Oblonsky is back having affairs again. Neither his appetite or job is at all disturbed until the last moment of the film, when he and his again devoted forgiving and pregnant wife have Levin and his wife, Dolly, to stay with them. We see Stiva (of all people) grieving behind a door.
It’s not Tolstoi’s novel, and some of departures were those I expected: the moralistic Levin story is made tertiary. Levin is your salt-of-the-earth character. In Stoppard’s version Levin has much to learn from Kitty who when she first saw him was a shallow ancient regime flirt. Levin who works alongside his peasants (troubling them by so doing according to Tolstoi) would have ejected his alcoholic brother, who have been bankrupted by gambling, especially with his ex-prostitute wife. After Kitty realizes Levin’s “worth” and marries him, and comes to the farm, Kitty sponges down the brother with the help of this “whore” and she and her sister-in-law become linchpin types within a family and agricultural system. This is Tolstoi stuff, minus any concern for reform.
The medium itself throughout, reasserting itself: a theater:
But for me Anna’s story is what matters: she is the rebel; she is not a cow, not a sowing instrument. She wants an individual life, companionship, conversation and yes good sex.
In these novels, a long period of erotic awakening turns into a similar slow burn of disillusion and then, despairing, self-destruction. Amidst this we keep our souls alive.
To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive. — R. L. Stevenson
I doubt if in Tolstoi Anna stands for these principles. I read the novel as I do Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves where the princess has fallen for a Jungian animus. Vronsky is a type descending also from Austen’s S&S (Willoughby), and includes motifs like Trollope’s Burgo Fitzgerald’s cruelty to his horse in CYFG? signalling what he would be to a wife or mistress.
The whole paradigm originates in the 18th century and is usually presented as a warning lesson for the awakened woman. This is how Roger Shattuck in his Forbidden Knowledge sees it. He inveighs against the alternative view which urges women and men to liberate themselves. Recent women’s novels use the paradigm to show women’s lack of freedom, e.g.,. Sarah Waters’ (Affinity); A. S. Byatt’s Possession. When gone into personally with no imposed lessons it’s still verboten, and you can find women novelists using pseudonyms; one great one is an Italian novel, the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment.
I expect that Wright and Stoppard are hoping to have this Xmas hit (remember The King’s Speech?), to win over Les Miserables. I did love the costumes and far shots. This is a favorite, again a cut-off shot from the Net but in the film we see a wide scene of a platform, snow, mist, hear the sounds, and then zero in on her in that outfit:
It’s not happening as yet in my local moviehouse. The theater was only half full. Why? it’s a woman’s story as told, not a man’s. Recently I’ve watched a series of films by women: Agnieska Holland’s The Secret Garden and Washington Square were among them. Again, both make explicit the tabooed point of view that is left implicit in the original text and by viewers sometimes overlooked or denied, with a far greater delicacy of approach. Here is a more delicate moment which might make us remember a cutting painful scene in Emma: Wright and Stoppard opt for playfulness; Levin and Kitty try to reach one another through alphabets:
What makes this a male film out of a male book? In Tolstoi is the great sympathy Wright gives the conventional male (that’s why Levin survives into the film too). In this clip that Wright authorized on line we have both males, Vronsky and Karenin; in Tolstoi it’s Anna who is contrasted to Levin; here the contrast is Vronsky (macho promiscuous male) versus Karenina (Mr Knightley under great strain in an amoral court world). The film ends with Levin and his wife sitting down to dinner with Oblonsky (who has to retreat for a moment) and his and Karenina who ends up in the meadow with his and Vronsky’s child, with Anna under the ground.
Shall we feel for male who holds society up, Karenin or the male who disrupts it, Vronsky? and it’s not fair that Stiva, however he loved his sister, gets away with it. (D. H. Lawrence stuff; see also Atonement). By contrast, Tolstoi’s book is with Anna (ultimately the most moral character in the book) and Levin (the second most, on a conventional plain) as his tragic and hard-working poignant cynosures; they are sincere, authentic. They do not resign themselves like Oblonsky’s wife Dolly.
It is a woman’s film because it dwells on women, how they look, we are invited to gaze at them again and again as women and as men.
I’ve never read the whole novel. As with Moby Dick where I skipped alternative chapters: I was so irritated by Levin I passed all chapters with him as focus. That left me with a much slenderer novel, half the structure. I’m also not sure whose text I read, who was the translator. Nowadays that makes me ashamed — not the reading every other chapter.
This film makes me want to read the whole novel, slowly, or listen to a great reader read it. Does anyone know of any powerful great reader who has done this on MP3s available generally?