The novel from which a film is adapted can often hang heavy around its neck; it is a millstone of expectations that varies depending on the weightiness of the tomes’ story, the number of readers who hold its pages sacrosanct, and the success of previous attempts to render it on the silver screen. Tolstoy’s masterpiece, described by Dostoevsky as, ‘flawless as a work of art’ has been consistently lauded since its publication in 1877, and any attempt to recreate its magic has been subjected to seemingly intolerably close scrutiny. This has not dissuaded many from attempting, with the first film adaptation produced in Russian in 1914, quickly followed by an American version the following year. En route to Joe Wright’s latest release, the lead character has undergone such transformations afforded by her impersonators, most notably Greta Garbo and Sophie Marceau, and it would be fair to say that there seems little that could be achieved by yet another remake of this classic.
Set during the beginning of the end of the Russian Empire, Tolstoy’s novel charted the romances and fortunes of its characters, trapped by a system that afforded few the opportunities that they desired, in which patriarchy and caste dictated almost all aspects of society. In some ways it would seem that Hitchcock’s warning’s about Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, being unfilmable should extend to Tolstoy’s own opus. On the surface it is a series of compelling love stories, interwoven between the moral dilemmas that plague each and every one of us. Joe Wright adeptly tackles this element of the story; his love scenes are heartfelt without feeling schmaltzy, and his characters are believable, vibrant and in tune with their original incarnation. It was unsurprising that he should choose Keira Knightley to play the lead role, given her previous performances in Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, but on reflection it seems a flawed one. Whilst Knightley is usually perfectly suited to the costume drama roles that have become her forte, her latest engagement feels a little thin. Lacking in the dramatic and piercing beauty that Anna necessitates, and adding a touch too little warmth to the character, her earliest encounters with Count Vronsky seem a little timid, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson stealing the attention with his simpering perfumed arrogance. As the film develops she grows into the character, and as Anna’s star fades, and her mentality becomes weaker, Knightley proves herself equal to the task, delivering a solid performance of a morphine-addled mind completely in flux.
The men that dominated Tolstoy’s vista were flawed in every dimension, and Wright manages to convey this astutely. Matthew Macfadyen and Domhnall Gleeson are as diametrically opposed as their friendship dictates, and their chemistry is clearly in evidence. As Oblonsky, the consistently unfaithful brother of Anna, Macfadyen exudes the smarm and ignorance of his own failings that are essential to the role. Sadly, his deceit, both of his wife and himself is too often played for laughs, with the implications of his actions, and countless others like him, being conveniently ignored. Wright has engineered a world as seen through the eyes of its male protagonists; highly glossed, with misfortune becoming the folly of anyone but themselves. This depth of the book, as a condemnation of society and it attitudes is given too little attention, and only very occasionally does the wider picture of Russia falling apart at the seams creep into Wright’s vision.
As a love story, the film works as well as could have been expected; it is beautifully shot, with an innovative staging that succeeds more often than it fails, though initially a seemingly baffling carousel of sets and stages. Viewed as a work of art trading solely on its own merits, Wright’s work is therefore an accomplished addition to his catalogue of similarly high-quality productions. However, as a retelling of one of greatest novels ever written, it falls hopelessly short. It is impossible to judge a film based on a novel of such all-encompassing magnitude and fame without holding it up in comparison, and in this instance it forms a pale shadow, the story’s meaning lost in a glittering cinematic mazurka. Not so much an indictment of the director’s vision as it is a compliment to the genius of the Russian Count and the millstone of his creation, Wright’s Anna Karenina will do little to enhance this unrivalled tale.