Much hype circulated around this recent adaptation of Anna Karenina, which of course has proven to be a staple of film, for many decades, seemingly having some adaptation for pretty much every decade within the history of cinema. It is hard to justify creating a new version of such works, especially when it is arguable that nothing new can be provided on the subject matter, however, Joe Wright does manage to exact something that is fresh both in terms of the age old material, as well as in regards to cinematic production as well. This particular version, similar to one of my favorite films Dogville, immediately demands that viewers accept the world of their film to exist within a distinct and minimized space. While it is certainly not as diluted as in Von Trier's work, Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina is seemingly set within the confines of one theater, which proves both expansive and restrictive, much like notions of love and intimacy so ever-present within Tolstoy's seminal novel. Many critics, specifically the guys at Filmspotting, seem decidedly split on Wright's vision, a few arguing that it brings a much desired vibrance to the antiquated text, while others seem content to claim its showy spectacle as a distraction. I would venture to say that an argument could be made for either, although I favor the new life argument and happily embrace Wright's vision, although it could be influenced heavily by my deep adoration for his breakout hit Atonement. Of course, this adaptation of Anna Karenina is not perfect and certainly has a handful of flaws, especially in regards to embracing consistency within the rather condensed diagetic framework, however, when this minimalist approach coalesces perfectly with the grandiosity of the cinematic narrative magic does exist on a nearly unprecedented theatrical level, and to Wright's credit he manages to evolve and appropriate specifics of the novel to an contemporary audience, which results in a quite an enjoyable film and one of the deserved stand outs from this year in film. Furthermore, it never hurts when a movie incorporates stars from the hottest show from across the pond, which, as you certainly know, is Downton Abbey.
The story of Anna Karenina is all to familiar, even for those who have not read the novel or seen an adaptation earlier, the premise and plot has been adapted and reworked to fit a variety of films and other cultural outputs, regardless, a rehashing of the plot is a bit necessary as it is a dense work with many characters moving throughout the narrative. Essentially there are two intertwined story lines, the first focusing on Matvey (Eric Maclennan) a wholesome pseudo-aristocrat who has taken to a life of hard labor as a means to become closer to his employment, as well as those that work for him, much to the demise of his family and his dear friend Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen). Despite his troubled identity, Matvey is quite resolute in his adoration of Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) a baroness who is the object of many suitors, specifically Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) a soldier who helps tie in Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) the somewhat vapid wife of Russian diplomat Karenin (Jude Law). Dolly refuses the marriage pleas of Matvey because of her infatuation with Count Vronsky, however, Vronsky's eyes wander to Anna upon their initial meeting, a desire that is shared by Anna who despite her position of power as it is tied to Karenin engages with Vronsky and becomes his mistress. Needless to say their improper engagement leads to levels of distrust and infidelity ones with very serious societal and political consequences, eventually leading to the ruin Vronsky's military career and Anna's being shunned by proper social groups. In the wake of being left by Vronsky, Dolly returns pleading forgiveness from Matvey who embraces her desires gladly and their life begins with dueling sacrifices intended to display their mutual loves, which proves beautifully successful. In sharp contrast is the relationship of Anna and Vronsky one that has detrimental effects mentally on Vronsky and enacts clearly physical changes upon Anna, one of which being her eventual death. However, even in her lack of existence, the narrative suggest that her presence lingers on even in the most subtle of situations.
The beauty of the metaphor of a closed space within this version of Anna Karenina is not easiliy lost and, in fact, is quite welcome. The notions of politics, polite society and infidelity are often intimately tied together. Hell, look at the recent General Petraeus scandal and its aftermath, not so much for its degree of shock concerning its effects on how we understand privacy and the value of respect associated to public figures. Wright's adaptation certainly plays into these ideas in how we are led to view characters like Anna and Vronsky, whose relationship does have an element of sincerity and legitimacy, yet the very clear acts of infidelity and disregard for other individuals makes it loathsome, especially since in the confined spaces of this particular narrative many of their acts of betrayal occur while the other individuals are literally standing within eyesight, take a dance scene for example. Incidentally, this notion of close quarters also allows for guilt and paranoia to consume those engaging in acts of betrayal, as well as those being betrayed, which happens with near cinematic perfection when we are shown Karenin leaving his house, only to look through a glass window to see not his reflection, but that of Vronsky, a cruel reminder that exiting the stage does not mean that the terrible and bothersome actions are occurring any less. This moment is almost hypermeta, in that Wright questions what is lost when acknowledging that a character in a play, despite being off stage, in all likelihood still hears words and actions occurring on stage as they are often in earshot. This is doubly exposed in the moment of Anna's death, which while exceptionally graphic is more so intense because the characters close to her appear to fell the physicality of her passing, not on a ethereal level but one of a very real factor, because it is occurring in the rafters above the theater, at least the diagesis of this work would lead us to believe such things. Beyond these moments of brilliance, Wright also makes nods to The Rules of the Game and Children of Paradise that cannot and should not be ignored in this specific reading.
Key Scene: The horse raise is really fucking intense, so much so that the expletive is necessary to drive the point home
This film is cinematic and meant for theatrical consumption, fortunately for everyone it is still in theaters and quite deserved of your money. Drop what your are doing and go watch it immediately.