Sunday, April 10, 2016

April's Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: ANNA KARENINA offers life as theater--an opera ballet crossed with a stage play packaged in film

The law can be sidestepped 
 but not the rules. 

Joe Wright, who directed Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, directs her again in his controversial version of ANNA KARENINA, (2012), now streaming on Netflix (Wright and Knightley are shown below).

The story of the tragedian who throws herself in front of a train for love is as familiar a tragedy as Romeo and Juliet. Anna's story has been told and retold in ballet, opera, and in a dozen screen versions.

Wright, armed with a new screenplay by the eminent Tom Stoppard, scouted sites in Russia and England and found himself resisting the lure of another mannered period drama.

Instead he built a Russian theater vintage 1874 housing 100 different sets including a ball room, ice rink (below), horse race course, cabaret, offices, bed- and drawing-rooms that convey the theatricality of late 19th century Russian aristocracy where the law could be sidestepped but not the rules. On this dynamic stage (below) Tolstoy's story jumps off the screen even as you watch Seamus McGarvey's camera maneuver among sets and props, equipment grinding as scenes unfold rapidly within the confines of the theater. If this is not your beloved "Anna Karenina", never mind; it's a stunning visual and dramatic coup that triumphs on its own --an opera ballet crossed with a stage play packaged in film.

Some devotees of the 800+-page novel looking forward to the summoning of a treasured novel through traditional narrative are put off by Wright's experiment. It's true that the depth of Tolstoy's social/political purpose and the humanness of his characters are diminished, but the architecture and meaning is more or less intact. And this version has a way of registering the novel in your memory as a gorgeous relic of aristocratic Russia and a sharp metaphor of Tolstoy's intent to contrast its vapidity with the morality of pastoral life.

The story itself is simply structured around the lives of several couples and their relations (see below). Beautiful Countess Anna (at left and center left) is a dutiful and not unhappy matron in her marriage to Karenin, an older, eminent government official (Jude Law, center right). Her affections are reluctantly captured by the dashing Count Vronsky, a cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, below, right). Anna's careless, carefree brother Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, bottom row, center left), father of a brood and husband to Dolly (Kelly MacDonald, bottom row, left) combines love of family with philandering and wasteful spending. Dolly's young sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander, bottom row, right) is jilted by Vronsky after he meets Anna, but Kitty realizes not too late that Stiva's dear friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, bottom row, center right) is the right match.

Levin, Tolstoy's alter-ego, actively joins in the running of his country estate in a period not long after Russia freed its serfs. Levin has progressive views of farm management and works the fields with his farm employees. The humble and sacrificial business of Kitty and Levin's rural life is contrasted with the hypocrisy and waste of life in Moscow and St. Petersburg. For emphasis, the camera departs the theater only for scenes filmed in nature, especially the Russian countryside on Levin's estate. The difference is noted over and again between the ruling elite ensconced in theater sets gossiping and pointing fingers, while the pure at heart are threshing grain on the farm.

The storyline breathes easily through Wright's theater device, but he did slip up with some characters. Vronsky here is callow and cruel while exquisite Anna becomes her own version of unlikeable. This is not Tolstoy's Anna and Vronsky, rather the director assigning them blame for their plight. In fact the Vronsky of the novel, light-weight though he may be, is not cruel to his race horse or his lover. He does nothing to drive Anna off, rather he loves, sacrifices, and tries to protect her from the cruelty of their social set.

Anna becomes a fly caught in a web of societal disapproval; her life of luxury and entitlement doesn't prepare her for how unendurable rejection will be once the affair had changed from acceptable dalliance to grand passion. She is trapped between sincere love and the security of her social standing among her peers.

Unable to endure her life as an outcast, neither can she remain with her husband. Suicide is her escape, as all the world knows.

A particular trait of Tolstoy's style is the ongoing reveal of characters' thoughts and feelings in a stream of conscious or unconsciousness; it helped modernize 19th century literature and accounted for many pages of the novel. The reader's mind tunes in to the felt and unspoken (even Levin's dog had thoughts). This feeling of joy or that feeling of mortification, etc., makes the characters human, not archetypes of good or bad. The reader does not judge so much as empathize. Wright's film skimps on the ampleness of Tolstoy's humanness. It falls to the acting ability of the players to convey thoughts and feelings that Tolstoy put on the page, the most sensitive work being Alicia Vikander's Kitty (below). (Vikander deserves every award she gets.) In my view, the three main characters are directed improperly, lacking Tolstoy's neutrality and preventing the viewer from feeling any empathy towards them.

While Tolstoy treated his characters with affection, his disapproval was entirely directed at hypocrisy and excess of the ruling class. Tolstoy's beliefs foreshadowed proletariat revolution to come, but note here that director Wright enabled harsh judgment of the main characters while Tolstoy did not. Rather the novelist found fault with the lifestyles of the rich and famous in which they were trapped.

Still, if you can peel yourself away from the depths of the novel, treat yourself to the thrill offered up by Joe Wright that could have gone wrong but instead offers memorable and imaginative theater workings. If Wright does not show perfect faithfulness to Tolstoy's characters, he ends the film with an image of his derelict theater filled not with lavishly costumed patrons but with a field blooming in wildflowers. Unfortunately the photo below is distorted by over-exposure, but it shows that Wright gets Tolstoy's socio-political end game -- the meaningful life is the rural life.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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