Anna Karenina (or Анна Каренина if you speak Russian) is often referred to as the greatest novel ever. The 864 page book is widely regarded as a pinnacle in realist fiction, and Tolstoy himself considered Anna Karenina his first true novel. Fyodor Dostoevsky professed it to be “flawless as a work of art”, Vladimir Nabokov, especially admired “the flawless magic of Tolstoy’s style”, and William Faulkner, described the novel as “the best ever written”.
Despite being filmed several times (this is the 13th screen Anna Karenina) there have always been arguments that no cinematic interpretation actually gets to real grips with the massive tome.
Set in late-19th-century (not long before the Russia revolution will change everything for ever) Anna Karenina is the story of Russian high-society, where the blandly (but satisfactorily) married aristocrat Anna Karenina (“I was eighteen when I got married, but it was not love”) enters into a verboten and life-changing affair with the passionate and sensual Count Vronsky, with truly tragic consequences.
This 2012 version of Anna Karenina, scripted by Tom (Shakespeare in Love) Stoppard, does a great job of carving a workable film. The director who hit such a bullseye with Atonement, Joe Wright is a man who does not fear the Russian classic and the audience is served a sumptuous and accessible film. The biggest point about this version of Anna Karenina is the choice to stage it on / around a theatre. This is no “staged” film, as despite the stylized presentation of the theatre setting and the fact that some of the most dramatic scenes (both grand and personal) are stet on the boards, scenes take place in the wings and up in the flies above the stage. At one point a character exits from the back of the theatre, through giant doors opening up on to the real countryside, and it works like a dream.
Anna Karenina stars; Keira Knightley as Anna, Jude (proper balding) Law as her middle-aged, cuckolded (yet excessively restrained) husband, Karenin, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the “other man” and Anna’s route to damnation, Count Vronsky (who prowls through early scenes like Tomcat) and Domhnall Gleeson plays Levin a landowning love-struck Tolstoy-alike (although being all Russian, every character is referred to by their title, their surname and their first name). The cast is routinely excellent with the sad exception of Knightly, who is just too waiflike to play the complex, conflicted and mad Anna as she tackles motherhood, marriage and unbridled passion, before descending into despair and crazy. However, the film is strong enough to survive one mis-casting.
The story starts when she arrives in the midst of a family broken up by her brother’s (an excellent Mathew McFadden) shameless (and mostly harmless) womanizing—something that shades the duplicity of her own later situation. The novel, Anna Karenina begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but the film Anna Karenina never quite reaches the depth of tragedy that the book does. That’s hardy a mean criticism as no normal audience could sit through a complete and unabridged adaptation of Tolstoy’s magnum opus.
Anna Karenina will work best with people who have read (and understood) the novel, but is a cinematic feast for anyone.