The last time I looked Anna Karenina was a long-assed book; 864 pages of philosophy, love and peasants.
Anyone taking on the task of doing a film adaption is going to have to be selective about the story they wish to tell.
In director Joe Wright’s film latest adaption he had the help of legendary playwright Tom Stoppard, which is handy. No doubt he called upon the writers experiences writing the play Arcadia, a mammoth work concerning Revolutionary Russia.
Naturally, Wright and Stoppard focused on the love story at the heart of the book but from that point all other choices where rather more unconventional and surprising.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening that was followed by a Q&A with director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightley who were both informative and lucid about the film.
Wright described it as ‘a ballet’ that makes no attempt at ‘realism’ in a conventional sense. Instead right from the opening frames the audience is made aware that this whole film is happening on a stage, both literally and metaphorically. Actor’s entrances and exits have a choreographed feel with everything in a state of constant flux.
Perhaps in anticipation of this, the audience was told that the rehearsals for the film featured exercises where actors had to express their feelings to one another without the use of words. Not that the words spoken throughout the film aren’t important or impressive (Stoppard took as much of the dialogue as possible direct from Tolstoy’s text.) It’s just that gesture becomes another way to express feeling, almost in the way a silent film might do.
As impressive as the settings and choreography are, it’s the performances that make the whole thing hang together.
Knightley as Anna and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky are particularly impressive.
Knightley spoke of how she made the deliberate decision to play Anna as Tolstoy wrote her. Which is not as the doomed romantic heroine wronged by society for loving a man other than her husband but as a complex, capricious, maddening woman who was as van, selfish and cruel as she was passionate and loving.
In fact, it seems that her portrayal was so unsympathetic that on the set, during the preparations for her death scene, many of the crew sang ‘Ding Dong the witch’s dead’.
This is perhaps a touch unfair for we do have sympathy for Anna, torn between the love or her child and the love of Vronsky, all the while coping with the anger of her priggish, saintly husband (nicely done, courtesy of Jude Law)
Before the film began I had had reservations about the point of actually redoing a book that has already been made into several films but this Anna Karenina, both in style and content, was different enough to allay my fears.