There was some confusion when an Italian film company was in Vilnius filming scenes for an upcoming version of Anna Karenina. I think a lot of folks expected to see Keira Knightley in town, although Vittoria Puccini appears to be quite a beauty herself. This is the third adaptation of the film in the last four years. An earlier Russian television version was completed in 2008, which garnered mixed reviews.
The reviews have been mixed on the 2012 British adaptation as well, but after watching it this weekend I was won over by Keira Knightley's performance and the fascinating theatrical interpretation of the novel, using constantly changing theater backdrops to give the story heightened dramatic effect. This worked especially well in the first half of the movie as Joe Wright literally set the stage for the characters. Wright moves at a pretty fast pace, unlike the novel, covering a tremendous amount of ground in short order. He had Tom Stoppard to help him abridge the text into a smooth narrative that still managed to capture many of the subtleties of Tolstoy's text.
The idea of staging the scenes, particularly the haunting horse race, in a hyper-reality theater was really a masterstroke, and Wright and Stoppard deserve a lot of credit for this. Wright uses a number of theatrical tricks, including Anna's frantic stroking of her fan turning into the hoofs of the horses as they come out of the dark and onto the stage, only for Vronsky to come careening off his beloved Frou-Frou into the lower audience. Anna gasps so audibly from her box seat that everyone at once knows her interest in the rider.
Knightly really shines in this film. I had my doubts as most of Anna's emotions were internalized in the novel. Keira has emerged as one of the great leading ladies of our day, able to convey so much in her characters. She gives Anna the full body of emotions without overdoing it. Everyone else hovers around her. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is pretty much eye candy as Vronsky, and Jude Law offers a very subdued version of Alexei Karenin, a bit too sympathetic for my taste. Levin and Kitty remain on the periphery, but are well played by Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. Matthew MacFadyen, as Oblonsky, is the only one to really compete with Keira on stage. He fills his character with all the aplomb that Tolstoy gave him in the novel.
Wright touches on but doesn't expand on the wonderful asides between Oblonsky and Levin, like the time Oblonsky joined Levin for a hunt on his distant estate. Still, there are some wonderful rural scenes, captured in rich colors like a Repin painting when Levin thrashes hay with his peasants. It is clear that Wright and Stoppard read and absorbed the novel. They didn't treat it lightly.
The film rushes a bit too quickly to an end, making for some rather confusing scenes between her and Vronsky and Karenin. She was clearly a tragic figure in Tolstoy's novel, but you don't have as much empathy for her in the film, largely because Karenin and Vronsky are both made into sympathetic figures. As a result, Anna comes across as "an awful woman" having brought catastrophe upon herself.
Perhaps this is an attempt to update the novel, since it is hard for viewers today to understand just how claustrophobic 19th century aristocratic life could be for a woman who wanted something more than her much older husband could give, namely love. In this sense, Anna Karenina mirrors Madame Bovary, but unlike Flaubert's creation, Anna is not able to overcome her situation, in large part because all her actions are made much more visible in society.
Wright ends his story with Levin and Kitty, but alas we don't get enough about them for us to really feel the strength of their love. It is treated pretty much as a child-like love given both of their naivety in such matters. Their idealistic love was meant to counter that of Anna and Vronsky, with Levin's and Kitty's love more or less taking over the second half of the novel.
Just the same, I wasn't disappointed. I thought it was an inspired production offering a bold new interpretation of the novel.