We get it. The movie opens with a shot of a proscenium and an orchestra tuning. There is a backstage and lights and seats and set pieces that turn into other sets. It is a performance. That much is clear. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have set up the latest screen adaptation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s lengthy novel of adultery, on a stage. It was a nifty idea.
But unfortunately, that nifty idea just didn’t make sense as an actual film. Despite Wright’s talent for directing Keira Knightley in sprawling period pieces (see Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), Anna Karenina, at a fundamental level, just doesn’t work.
Almost immediately in the film, the theatrical framing begins to take away from the grandiosity of the story. As soon as the four walls of the stage appear, they make the film seem smaller. The goal may have been intimacy but the result was meekness and, quite frankly, confusion. Why did some of the drama take place on the stage and some not? Where does a field fit in with catwalks and sandbags and trapdoors? Why is there an audience onscreen sometimes and not others? Why do any of this at all?
It appears, eventually, that the world of the stage is the public one. When Anna is, as it were, on display in Russian society, the action takes place in the theater. Her more private moments take place in the traditional sets of a movie, and then slowly, as the film progresses, are forced into the public space. It’s really very intriguing, and it gets at the central theme of the story, but it just doesn’t always work. The audience will likely spend more time trying to figure out exactly why the film is flipping between the stage and the apparent real world than appreciating the artistic value of that switch.
The film’s problems are not solely due to this theatrical framing. Wright’s portrait of Anna is no more sympathetic than Tolstoy’s was, yet this whiny, tiresome brat is hard to take on screen. The central love triangle — between Anna, her husband and her lover Vronsky — lacks the chemistry to make it believable and the urgency to make it engaging. Whether this is the fault of Wright or Tolstoy is hard to tell, but the focus on the lovers verges into boredom, and makes for a third act that really drags.
Even for an avid appreciator of theater, there was a fundamental disconnect between the goal of the framing device and seeing that device. The film, perhaps, deserves an “A” for effort. They had an intriguing idea and they tried so hard. And it must be noted how beautiful the film is to look at, especially in the way it weaves stage sets and film sets with gorgeous costumes in meticulously composed shots. There was a lot of thought put into the whole thing. Unfortunately in Hollywood, the thought isn’t really what counts.