Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright, 2012) is too much enthralled by its stylistic premise: that of a play within a play, of an audience watching the story on a stage, as if the audience members are the bystanders who observe the actions of the characters working out their fates. The film begins by showing us the story through the window of the stage, a proscenium. Characters behave in stylized fashion, and the acting even seems stilted. Gradually this melds into the real-time action of the story itself, but even then we frequently find ourselves limited to the physical location of the stage. Characters go back stage and come on stage. They climb up into the upper story, or they descend below stage. Often we’re aware of the artificial appearance of a stage, and other times we seem to be in the real, unmediated world.
Tolstoy’s novel is some 1000 pages long. Although the film for the most part seems to have the basic details of the plot right (it’s been 45 years since I read the novel, and I can’t remember anything other than the basic outline of the plot), it lacks depth of detail and feeling. I never engaged emotionally with the film at all. I understood what was going on, understood what Anna or her husband or Count Vronsky were feeling in a particular scene, but my emotions never engaged. Is this because a film in 2 hours and 10 minutes cannot come close to achieving what a novel in 1000 pages can do?
Joe Wright gives us a passion play of sorts, a pantomime of Tolstoy’s great novel, one of the truly great novels of the western world. In fact there are tableau-like scenes, pantomime scenes, where the action seems to freeze, background characters are frozen in motion, while the principals continue to focus on one another. Thus our attention is directed.
This film forces us to see the characters as characters, artificial constructs in an artificial narrative, when in fact we are supposed to see them as themselves, as real, not as artificial. To see them otherwise is to destroy and violate the narrative illusion. What we have in place of that illusion is an aesthetic construct. We know we’re seeing something contrived, constructed, built. We appreciate its artifice, its cleverness, its genius, perhaps, but not its art. Because it isn’t art. It’s artifice.
Certain symbols emerge early, especially that of the train, the massive steam engine that powers the train. It’s a symbol of sexual passion, of male dominance, and also of the state that can crush individual citizens, especially laborers and powerless individuals, under its heels. An early glimpse of the mangled body of a worker who has fallen under the wheels of a locomotive drives this point home. Social gatherings at balls and at the opera show how upper-class society functions—casting judgment on what individual members do, valuing or devaluing their importance, ultimately casting them out when transgressions occur. In one scene at the opera, the reactions of audience members to an individual who has transgressed function much like the crushing wheels of the locomotive.
The masculine connotations of the locomotive imply that society is male dominated, that women occupy roles defined by that society, and that there is no place for them outside those roles. It is thus better, according to one argument in the film, to remain in a bad marriage than to give up everything that marriage entitles one to: privilege, wealth, children, social position. From another viewpoint marriage is a social pretense that gives one social definition but that also imprisons. Women are little better than serfs, personal property. We see Count Vronsky caress his prized horse in the same way he caresses Anna, for instance.
I’m interested in rereading the novel to see whether it contains the feminist energy that drives the film and its definitions of the individual’s place in society.
Keira Knightley is effective as Karenina, but she often seems to do little more than hold a pose, with her lower lip prominently puffed out. Jude Law as Alexy, her husband, is the most interesting and credible character in the film. When he sees his wife falling into the affair that will ruin their marriage and her life in particular, he tries to save her. But he recognizes finally that Anna is “irretrievably lost.” From her point of view, she is at last a free soul, but she lives in a society that does not recognize her freedom.
Anna Karenina is consistently interesting, both the story itself and the means by which it is told. But it holds its audience, or at least this audience member, at a distance.