Keira Knightley plays the title role in the latest screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's 1877 novel, teaming up to form a third collaboration with Joe Wright, director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.
Set among the 19th century Russian aristocracy, this is the story of the beautiful and enigmatic socialite Anna who is in a loveless but highly respectable marriage with Karenin, a high-ranking government minister. Her encounter with Count Vronksy, a wealthy and charming cavalry officer, propels her into the role of tragic heroine as they embark on a destructive love affair.
The film's plot is fairly faithful to the book. However, the power of Tolstoy's novel lies more in his rich and complex characterisations, driven by a constant stream of internal monologues. This gives the reader a full understanding of their inner conflicts and states of mind, enabling her to bridge gaps that the characters can't.
Distilling a brick-sized novel into just over two hours of film inevitably means that much of the social and political context in which Tolstoy bathes his protagonists is lost. As it crosses from one medium to another, any adaptation is built on a delicate balancing of gains and losses. With enough of the former, this is a worthy film which takes full advantage of the visual medium.
Interestingly, the film is "set on stage", played out in a theatre or several. The practice of scenography (painted scenery, set design, lighting, costume, performance, bodily movement) structures the film: a room is suddenly revealed to be a stage as the camera angle expands; sets move around characters as they move through them; the urban landscapes of Moscow and St Petersburg are shown to be painted backgrounds; whole groups of characters regularly freeze and fall into darkness and characters walk "backstage" revealing scaffolding, lights and technicians at work. All of this lends the film a dream like quality.
The immediate effect is to keep the viewer constantly engaged - the landscapes and background are not a passive backdrop for the characters, and so neither is the spectator, who participates in this constant visual unfolding, unlocking and interlocking of the story. This also lends a unique rhythm to the film which at times speeds up into a frenetic crescendo, and sometimes slows down until a scene is frozen in time and space. The elegant choreography and a score by composer Dario Marianelli help set the pace.
These external rhythms mirror the characters' experiences: when Vronksy and Anna only have eyes for each other, everyone else literally disappears into the background, for example. The internal states and feelings spelled out for us in the novel are here externalised into the film's visual structure.
This "frame within a frame" structure gives the impression from the start that this is not a story that is happening through the agency of individuals, but one that is already written and is merely being acted out by the characters, especially Anna Karenina as she falls into the ever-tightening embrace of a tragic heroine role, and its grip of madness. The idea that Tolstoy's characters are locked within the story is again echoed visually in the interlocking maze-like sets.
This "story within the story" undercurrent is also expressed through, and used to comment on, the theatricality of Russian high society, where characters frequently take the role of the audience, turning their gazes, judgements and whispers towards Anna and others.
This is a surreal and beautiful adaptation that carries more depth and weight than most other "aesthetically stunning" Hollywood films.
Anna Karenina is directed by Joe Wright and is released 7 September