Hollywood has never been kind to Anna Karenina. Producers sex it up and dumb it down, chuck in lots of money, some pretty costumes and even prettier (usually bad) actors, then sit back and congratulate themselves. So, despite a very original artistic concept from director Joe Wright, a serviceable performance by Jude Law as Karenin and a charming, all too short one by Matthew MacFadyen as Stiva, Anna Karenina falls flat on its face despite its best efforts to the contrary, with an Anna steeped in overacting and melodrama and a Vronsky so uncharismatic and so utterly lacking in masculinity that he wouldn’t look out of place at a finishing school in 19th century St. Petersburg (or perhaps on a street corner in Whitechapel in Victorian London).
When this film was being pre-produced as a conceptual piece, it must have had limitless potential, as director Joe Wright decided to shoot the film inside an old theatre as a metaphor for ‘all the world’s a stage’ applying particularly to the lives of the Russian aristocracy, as well as to those of the suffering multitude crammed miserably together in the wings and under the stage. In the first twenty minutes of the film, you can’t help but be struck by what a fantastically good idea this is, as we’re paraded through a whirlwind of beautiful, alternating sets that are militaristically efficient in immediately setting up the start of the plot and most of the principal characters. The problems begin when you have to start paying attention to the actors. An exquisite set and an equally exquisite concept are not much use if there is no one interesting populating them; and you’re soon overtaken by the sad realisation that you’re going to spend the rest of the film inside a beautiful doll’s house that is populated by faceless, personality-less figurines, the most interesting of them filled with sawdust, the least interesting being crude bundles of straw that only vaguely resemble real human beings.
Keira Knightley is a catastrophic miscast as Anna and unhappily resembles a dwarf wearing giant’s robes. She doesn’t seem to connect with even one dimension of Anna’s multi-faceted psychology and does not convince as a bored society wife, or a devoted mother, or a caring sister, or a passionate, guilt-stricken lover or even, eventually, as a woman so overcome by grief, desperation and suspicion that she’d sooner throw herself under a train than continue to live. There is no logical transition from one state of being to the next; and when we finally reach Anna in the tortured state of mind that precedes her suicide, we’re rather unceremoniously jolted into it like a drunk teenager being chucked into a swimming pool. We simply have no idea how we arrived at this point, or what seems to be going on now that we have arrived, and when Anna does eventually commit suicide, one’s bewilderment only increases: ‘Oh. She killed herself. Why? What happened?’ A suicide is an act of the worst kind of desperation and desire to escape that exists; in this case, it’s a person with a child, with a lover, people who would be destroyed by it, and Anna’s desire to escape is eventually greater than her desire to protect the people she loves. So, if an audience sits bewildered after her suicide demanding ‘Why?’ it is a clear indication that actress, director and scriptwriter have simply not done their jobs properly. Most amateurs in all three fields would not be so incredibly stupid.
Another miscast involving even more catastrophe is the positively awful Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. I could criticise him in the same way as I have Knightley, but that would imply that there is a substance somewhere to criticise. Vronsky is a charming, rakish, cultured, intelligent and above all intensely virile man who, to his own surprise, goes through a cathartic purging of his own heartlessness and selfishness by coming to love another person more than he loves himself. Like Anna’s, his character is vividly psychological and challenging, a challenge that this poor actor is simply incapable of rising to. He does not give off even the lightest whiff of sex or charisma, his screen presence slightly less powerful than a wet rag, and his sex scenes with Knightley have all the damp insipidness of a haddock bonking a salmon. There is no indication that Vronsky changes or develops at all, even in the scenes where it would be the easiest to (i.e. Karenin’s redemptive forgiveness of his actions) and it is also slightly unbelievable that a person like this could have survived even a day in a Russian regiment (let’s amuse ourselves by putting him in a room with Nikolaj Rostov and Captain Denisov…). To pour oil onto the fire, screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who is usually the undisputed God of his trade, unwisely leaves out Vronsky’s suicide attempt after Anna gives birth to their child, an immensely important turning point in Vronsky’s character; his desire to take his own life stemming from the fact that he feels that until there was a real risk of Anna dying, it seemed to him that he had never truly loved her. I don’t wish to be uncharitable and say that Taylor-Johnson would have bungled this too, but it might have added just the tiniest bit of substance to a Vronsky as scandalously empty as the container of biscuits next to my television.
Then there’s Jude Law and actors in supporting roles. Law has everything that would make a brilliant Karenin – blindness, sadness and eventually cruelty, but he’s given so little screen time that he hardly has time to express it at all. Sometimes in his scenes, particularly his argument with Anna after the races, you can observe him almost desperately trying to pour out everything he has in the too little time that is given him. Time, unfortunately, wins the argument.
My personal acting highlight of the film was Matthew MacFadyen as a Stiva just as delightful, loud and often frivolous as he is in the book, and watching him is a merciful relief from the utter boredom you feel most of the time. Then there’s the multitude of excellent actresses like Ruth Wilson, Kelly MacDonald, Michelle Dockery and Emily Watson squashed into roles so insipidly tiny that they have no time to come out and save this all-too-dark day with their brilliance. Watching Michelle Dockery do her tiny, five second scene with Knightley and Taylor-Johnson is hilarious by virtue of the fact that her screen presence alone utterly steamrolls both of them and makes us forget they’re there in the first place. It occurs to me that if Joe Wright had overcome his unhealthy obsession with Keira Knightley, hiring Dockery as Anna and finding a brilliant unknown actor to play Vronsky would have been sufficient to immortalise this film in the arthouse genre and win a ton of Oscars to boot. The film as it is, however, is going to be a source of ennui for years to come.
Let’s talk about directing and screenwriting. Joe Wright has either become complacent, or he believes he is setting up a legacy for himself, because there are certain things that have appeared in his previous films that he re-uses here, thus reducing their impact. For instance, in a dance scene, filming a hall full of people before making said people disappear so it looks like the protagonists are the only ones in the room. Another example is filming a character engaged in deep contemplation before turning the lights down so we know they’ve been sitting there all day. Furthermore, I wish to goodness he would stop working with Keira Knightley, but that’s never going to happen, so I wish he would kindly stop treating us to perpetual contemplation of her bare shoulders; or to gowns with one sleeve artfully slipping down. It’s tacky and makes you doubt the skill of her dressmaker. Then there’s the shocking state of Sir Tom Stoppard’s badly structured and indifferently-written script that doesn’t feel the least bit like Russia (but then none of the production does, so it can’t entirely be his fault). Stoppard is a truly brilliant man, and I sincerely hope that twenty years of writing Parade’s End have not somehow fried his brains. What I really mean to say is that both these men are really good at what they do and have produced something that is really awful, and it is this, more than the actual storyline, that constitutes the true tragedy of this film.
Here, therefore, is my summary of the entire unfortunate business. Despite a brilliant concept and beautiful cinematography, this film is a shameful flop in most respects, and we shall have to content ourselves that there hasn’t been a decent adaptation of poor Anna Karenina since the BBC adapted it in 1977, 36 years ago. My consequent advice to all future filmmakers is to either leave Anna Karenina alone or to do it properly, so that no cinema goer has to sit through a nightmare like this ever again.