"I tried to get through that book half a dozen times," a friend exclaimed when I told him I had seen "Anna Karenina," the half-dozenth (if not dozenth, if not hundred and sixth) adaptation of the novel by Leo Tolstoy. "Halfway through I wanted to give up. Why didn’t the silly bitch throw herself under the train that much sooner and get it over with?"
You’ll find no answers to that perplexing conundrum in director Joe Wright’s new version, which boasts a script by Tom Stoppard. If anything, you’ll likely find Stoppard’s all-too-literal interpretation of the dressy role-playing of society life to be a cause for slowly mounting aggravation.
On the other hand, there are handsome performances in abundance from Keira Knightly (she plays Anna), Jude Law (he plays her cuckolded husband, Karenin, torn between his white-hot jealous rage and his commitment to rationality), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as Anna’s lover, a handsome young cavalry officer whose first name, like her husband, is Alexei), and especially Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, a 19th century foodie whose life is one long, warm breeze of obsequious regard from underlings and amorous attention from his paramours.
The film’s highly structured choreography (the way Oblonsky glides in and out of his street coat and office jacket with the help of his minions, for instance, or how scenes frequently shift with a device as simple as a character stepping across a room) is sharp and energetic, and keeps the movie speeding along. Anna’s compulsive fits of rapture and misery (with misery being her dominant mode) could have derailed this movie, but Wright’s direction gathers such a head of steam that we’re whisked past trouble spots with glossy alacrity.
That, though, may also be something of a problem, adding a sense of remove and even triviality to this telling. Combined with frequent scenes that take place in an opera house regardless of setting (ice skating, grand party, horse-and-carriage on the street, tender moment between mother and child), the film’s rapid and stylized flow can come across as flippant and Anna’s fits as nothing more than hysteria in the worst, most antiquated sense of the word.
"Silly bitch," indeed. If Stoppard and Wright meant to lampoon the manners and mores of the titled, and entitled, class (note the venomous way in which one upper-crust lady declares that Anna, in flaunting her adulterous relationship, has done worse than break the law; "She broke the rules!"), they have done a fine job. But they have also stripped the drama and depth of human passion from the source material.