Decorum and decay deliciously portrayed in ‘Anna Karenina’

Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s tragedy, “Anna Karenina,”  is a beautifully realized portrait of a way of life, in its last stages of decay like artificial flowers dying in a harsh winter after the hothouse has fallen to ruins.

Filmed mostly in the Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England and inhabited by predominately British actors, this movie could be about any aristocratic system at the end of its days, while its glory still has a nostalgic glow. Shepperton Studios doesn’t quite date as far back as Tolstoy’s story. Build in 1931, the set has the patina of age, but a few decades younger than the actual time period of the story (late 19th century).

Anna (Keira Knightley) travels by train to Moscow to repair the marriage of her brother Stepan Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Her brother has committed adultery with the governess and the letters have been discovered by his wife. On the train, Anna innocently sits next to Countess Vronskaya (Olivia Williams) and they both talk about their sons. Anna’s son is still a child, but the countess’ son is a handsome young officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Count Vronsky has been flirting with Dolly’s sister, 18-year-old Kitty, and she believes his intentions are marriage. Anna was married at about 18 to Alexei who is twenty years older than her. When Anna and Kitty attend a ball, they both believe that Vronsky shall propose. Instead, Vronsky pursues Anna who at first rebuffs Vronsky’s advances, but eventually is seduced.

While other aristocrats have affairs, they do so within the boundaries of good taste, but Anna and Vronsky want more; they want to be married. Anna’s husband refuses the divorce and even if he allowed it, Anna would be socially ruined. In contrast to the artificial restrictions of the noble class, Levin lives in the country and works with the people who, in another time, were owned by his family. While his lifestyle and dress mark him as a country bumpkin, his way of life is seen as more authentic.

Director Wright contrasts the artificial world of the aristocrats and its stilted and arbitrary, often sexist mores with the practical views of Levin and the commoners by placing the aristocrats on a stage. They appear as actors, yet unlike a stage play where lighting and formations are often used to direct the audiences attention, Wright is able to use the framing of the camera’s lenses to guide us through this world. Like the actors in a theatrical stage performance, the aristocrats are forced to rub shoulders with the commoners–the backstage crew, when they change scenes or disappear into the catwalks above the stage. Wright uses the catwalks to show the aristocrats moving through the streets to the train station because the train station and train travel is an important motif in Tolstoy’s novel.

Before the trains, the serfs walked. The aristocracy road horses or traveled in carriages. They could avoid meeting the serfs and commoners. The train, even with the different classes of cars, bring the classes together and it is on a train that this tragedy begins and ends. Mass transit has that effect. Contrast the difference it makes in the culture of Los Angeles and New York or Los Angeles and Tokyo or London. Although one seldom considers the royal families there taking the subway, imagine what kind of difference it would make.

Unlike the stilted, tepid 1948 movie with Vivien Leigh as the title character, the morality of the filmmaker’s era doesn’t force the writers to villainize Anna’s husband and the chemistry between Keira Knightly and Aaron Taylor-Johnson smolders. They seem like beautiful, doe-eyed rare creatures and the ballroom scene choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui emphasizes stylish seduction.

The opulence of those ropes of pearls seem to burden Knightley’s Anna and destine her for tragedy as much as the ostentatious diamond necklace suggest a careless disregard for her husband’s wealth. Jacqueline Durran’s costume design is sumptuous and she creates natural contrasts between Levin’s world and even the natural world that Anna and Vronsky’s love inhabits.  CGI helps bring the outside world into the theater, even showing Vronsky’s tragic and revealing horse accident by having the horse tumble from the stage to where the orchestra pit might normally be, falling on its back. Having  the script written by Sir Tom Stoppard also aids making these transitions between worlds of the theater and the supposed natural world.

In Stoppard’s 1993 play “Arcadia,” the past and the present–180 years apart–unfold at the same time  on the same set as the truth behind a tragic love story is revealed.  Stoppard was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award for that piece, but won his Tonys for four other plays (1968, 1976, 1984, 2007).  He co-authored the 1998 “Shakespeare in Love” which won a Best Script Oscar.

Stoppard, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia, has a love of language and the script is intelligent and emotionally insightful. The decorum and decay that some people worship in the royalty pales when juxtaposed against the pastoral fantasies of country life.

This “Anna Karenina” is an adaptation that finally does Tolstoy justice and yet fully uses the advantages of cinema with the advances of CGI. Lush, emotionally complex and visually stunning, this movie fuses literature, theater and cinema and achieves visual poetry.

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