Joe Wright’s new film Anna Karenina is based on a very long novel by Count Leo Tolstoy that has been adapted for the screen several times already, but never better. Set in Imperial Russia in 1874, Anna Karenina is about two women: Anna, a 27 year old woman married to a much older man, and Kitty, an 18 year old girl on the edge of adulthood.
In crafting his own adaptation of this oft-told tale, director Joe Wright chose Tom Stoppard (best known to movie lovers for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love) as his screenwriter. The result is highly stylized and much closer in tone to Shakespeare in Love than to other recent adaptations of British literary classics including Wright’s version of Pride & Prejudice (which was released in 2005).
In both films, the intention is to transcend melodramatic plot elements, and focus instead on the miracle of artistic inspiration. How could one mere mortal, a Shakespeare, a Tolstoy, see so deeply into the human heart that we still treasure his work centuries later?
In crafting Anna Karenina, everyone behind the camera was well as in front of it devoted themselves to aesthetic ideals, creating a beautiful film that expands the mind and pierces the heart. (JLH: 4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner
“The Hot Pink Pen” is an advocate for women directors and screenwriters, and yet every so often an all-male writing/directing team gets it so right that their efforts must be loudly applauded. Furthermore in this case there are so many talented women in key roles behind the camera, that failure to recognize them in context would be close to criminal. So bravi to all associated with Anna Karenina (2012), not only one of the best films of the year, but also one of the most innovative literary adaptations ever captured on film.
Anna Karenina, created by Russian Count Leo Tolstoy, was published in serial installments starting in 1873, and finally released as one huge novel (over 800 pages long) in 1877. “Anna” (the main character played by Keira Knightly in Joe Wright’s new film) is a 27-year-old woman married to a much older man. Anna’s husband “Alexei Karenin” (Jude Law) is politically connected, socially prominent, and very wealthy, so Anna, who married Karenin when she was just 18, believes she has a perfect life . . . until one day she suddenly realizes she barely has any life at all.
Karenin loves Anna in his way, but typical for a man of his era, he treats her more like a beautiful object than a full person with her own needs and wants. He assumes she is content tending to him, his son, and his household in St. Petersburg, but an urgent letter from Anna’s brother “Stephan Oblonsky” (Matthew Macfadyen) becomes the instrument of the couple’s undoing.
On board the train to Moscow, Anna is befriended by an elegant woman named “Countess Vronskya” (Olivia Williams), and when they arrive, the Countess introduces Anna to her handsome son. “Alexei Vronsky” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), arriving to meet the train at the same time as Oblonsky, is immediately smitten with the young matron. Just as the four aristocrats are about to set off in separate directions, an accident disturbs their complacent camaraderie, and seeing Anna’s distress, Vronsky quickly seizes his moment to make an impression. “The family has you to thank,” Countess Vronskya whispers to Anna, and Anna’s heart starts to beat.
Arriving at the Oblonsky home, Anna learns that “Kitty” (Alicia Vikander), the 18-year-old sister of Stephan’s wife “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald), is infatuated with Vronsky, and she believes he will soon propose to her. Since Dolly is heavily pregnant, Anna agrees to accompany her brother to Kitty’s debutante ball. Of course Vronsky is also at the ball, and seeing Anna, he loses all interest in anyone or anything else. He follows Anna back to St. Petersburg, pursuing her until she relents, and once Anna escapes from Karenin’s gilded cage, there is no turning back.
Kitty had a second suitor, Oblonsky’s good friend “Konstantin Levin” (Domhnall Gleeson), who retreated to his country estate thinking Kitty would soon be betrothed to Vronsky. But Oblonsky convinces Levin to try again, and Levin and Kitty come together just as Anna leaves Karenin for Vronsky. Society embraces the newlyweds, rewarding Kitty for conforming to their expectations, and expelling Anna for violating their rules.
In crafting his own adaptation of this oft-told tale, director Joe Wright chose Tom Stoppard as his screenwriter. Stoppard is a playwright with innumerable accolades under his belt (including four Tony Awards for “Best Play”), but he is best known to movie lovers for Shakespeare in Love(which received 7 Oscars in 1999 including the one Stoppard shared with Marc Norman for “Best Original Screenplay”).
The result is highly stylized and much closer in tone to Shakespeare in Love than to the two most recent adaptations of British literary classics: Cary Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre and Andrea Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights. Ironically, we likely owe the release of these two films last year—at least in part—to the success of Wright’s version of Pride & Prejudice (which was nominated for 4 Oscars in 2006). These three films all congratulate themselves for their realism, and the heroines of all three films spend a great deal of time slogging through mud. There was also a lot of mud in Wright’s second literary adaptation, Atonement, which won one Oscar in 2008 and was nominated for 6 more.
There is no mud in Anna Karenina; in fact at least half of it is physically set inside a theatre, which was also the case in Shakespeare in Love. In both films, the intention is to transcend the melodramatic elements of each plot (who loves who, who leaves who; who cheats and who remains faithful) and focus instead on the miracle of artistic inspiration. Shakespeare in Love asked how Romeo and Juliet, a play created in Elizabethan England, continues to speak to us across four centuries. Similarly, Anna Karenina asks how a novel written in Imperial Russia continues to break our hearts today. How to dramatize the imaginative alchemy that enables one mere mortal, a Shakespeare, a Tolstoy, to see so deeply into the human heart that all the trappings of a specific time and a specific place serve to illuminate the eternal rather than weigh it down in contextual mud?
And so, in Anna Karenina just like in Shakespeare in Love, all the crafts teams devoted themselves more to aesthetic ideals than to period details, enabling the look of Wright’s film to achieve a level of physical beauty that expands the mind and pierces the heart. And here’s where women filmmakers played major roles behind the scenes. Critical to the success of Anna Karenina are the costume design by Jacqueline Durran, the hair and make-up design by Ivana Primorac, the production design by Sarah Greenwood, and the set decoration by Katie Spencer.
Two women, Dixie Chassay and Jina Jay, also did the casting, and it is surely no accident that the huge ensemble contains many familiar female faces in minor roles (for example, Michelle Dockery, Shirley Henderson, and Emily Watson), whereas most of the men in supporting roles are unrecognizable. And the casting is reinforced by the costumes, with women arrayed in fabulous feathers and gowns and hats and jewels of every hue, whereas the men mostly wear black and grey sometimes enlivened by a red sash. (The sole exceptions are the two male leads: Vronsky wears a blue tunic that emphasizes his soulful eyes, and Levin wears a brown tunic when working side-by-side on the land with his serfs.)
Film is a collaborative art and in praising the women who worked so diligently on Anna Karenina, I do not mean to slight any of the men. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, composer Dario Marianelli, and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui are all working at the top of their game, but the one person I single out for highest praise is Melanie Oliver, the editor who assembled all the pieces.
All the talents of the entire team—actors and artisans—come together in the magnificent ball that ends Act One. And for this brilliant sequence alone, Oliver has earned her Oscar nomination. And if she is not nominated, that scream you hear coming from Brooklyn on the morning of Tuesday, January 15, 2013, that will be me.
In the world captured by Anna Karenina, women lived their private lives at home and their public lives under the scrutiny of society women who enforced the rules. All “work” (the work of farming, the work of governing, the work of soldiering) was done exclusively by men. But for Anna, this is not enough. When her eyes finally open at age 27 and she perceives her life as it is, she can no longer continue in her assigned role; she must play out the script written in her heart. And when the readers of the 19th Century took Anna into their hearts, they helped change the limits of the world for the women of their day. And when we in the audience take Anna into our hearts today, we do the same.
Final Thoughts: Art Drawn from Life?
Leo Tolstoy met and married Sophia Behrs (“Sonya”) in 1862. He was 34; she was 18; their age spread was 16 years. Although he had never been married before, Tolstoy had at least one illegitimate child at the time of the marriage. Throughout the 1860’s, Tolstoy wrote drafts of War and Peace, with Sonya acting as his copyist. War and Peace was serialized and then published as one extremely long novel (over 1,000 pages!) in 1869 (the year the couple celebrated their seventh anniversary). In the 1870’s, Tolstoy worked on Anna Karenina which was also serialized, and then published as one very long novel (over 800 pages!) in 1877 (the year the couple celebrated their fifteenth anniversary).
Sonya kept diaries for most of her life, and beginning in 1877, Sonya also began studying the relatively new art of photography, eventually taking over one thousand photographs. In the course of their marriage, Sonya also bore thirteen children, eight of whom grew to adulthood. Leo Tolstoy died in 1910; Sonya died in 1919. Before she died, Sonya published her memoirs, titled simply My Life.
In War and Peace, the character “Natasha” meets the character “Andrei Bolkonsky” at her debutante ball. She is 18; he is considerably older and already a widower with a young son. He proposes and she accepts, but his father demands a one year engagement during which she becomes infatuated with a young officer. When a cousin foils their elopement, Natasha confesses to Prince Andrei and he leaves her.
Natasha falls desperately ill, but revives when French soldiers invade Russia. Prince Andrei is mortally wounded in battle and Natasha nurses him. After he dies, she marries the character “Pierre Bezukhov,” who was Prince Andrei’s best friend. Pierre Bezukhov has intellectual qualities much like Tolstoy’s own and is usually considered a “stand in” for Tolstoy. At the time of their marriage, Natasha is around 20; Pierre is around 35, and their age spread is around 15 years.
In Anna Karenina, the character “Kitty” is infatuated with the character “Alexei Vronsky.” She expects him to propose to her right after her debutante ball, but, at the ball, Vronsky falls in love with the character “Anna Karenina.” At the time of the ball, Anna is 27 years old. She has been married to “Alexei Karenin” for 9 years. Karenin is 20 years older than Anna. Vronsky is slightly younger than Anna.
After a period of depression and illness, Kitty marries the character “Konstantin Levin.” At the time of their marriage, Kitty is around 20, Levin is around 35, and their age spread is around 15 years. Konstantin Levin has many of Tolstoy’s biographical as well as intellectual qualities, and is even more of a “stand in” for Tolstoy than Pierre Bezukhov is.
So what? I believe that Tolstoy was burdened by something very commonplace in his era: the fate of an older man with money, power, and life experience who marries a young woman barely out of childhood.
Some people think it is a great tragedy that Natasha doesn’t marry Prince Andre. They think her life with Pierre, which is presented in detail in the second epilogue of War and Peace (far less acclaimed than the famous first epilogue), is a bit of a come down for Natasha. Doesn’t such a dynamic character deserve better?
But I think Anna’s fate in Anna Karenina argues otherwise. The young woman who marries an older man has no sense of who she really is. She is prey to girlishly romantic fantasy figures, and her opportunity for genuine happiness is slight.
Both Natasha and Kitty have their hearts broken at age 18, but then they both mature through their suffering, and they eventually make successful marriages to men who are their soul mates.
I think what still draws us to Anna after so many decades of change is Tolstoy’s empathy for her. He wants to condemn her behavior, but he can’t. Personhood comes at a price. Better to embrace life—in all its joy and sorrow—than to sit with no pulse on the sidelines.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (11/23/12) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Kiera Knightley as "Anna."
Middle Photo: Aaron Taylor-Johnson with Kiera Knightley as "Vronsky" and "Anna."
Bottom Photo: Alicia Vikander with Domhnall Gleeson as "Kitty" and "Levin."
Photo Credits: Laurie Sparham courtesy of Focus Features