There was a moment after the first ten minutes of Anna Karenina when I thought director Joe Wright had somehow confused Tolstoy with Tchaikovsky—it would be understandable, what with both names having that Russian thing going on, and beginning with Ts and ending with Ys—and I was looking at a filmed version of The Nutcracker Suite. Then the drama settled over the dancy-pransy stuff like thick ice on a Siberian lake, and the characters lapsed into something resembling normal film dialogue, although the balletic quality remained as the dominant conceit for the remainder of the film.
In that respect, Anna Karenina is a satisfying holiday piece, especially if you’re sitting, as I was, next to your mother in a theater on the Upper East Side of wintery New York, an area of our own imperial city that would be the modern equivalent of the locales in St. Petersburg where the film’s action takes place. The fact I was wearing a short shearling jacket that makes me look like a hussar—a middle-aged Count Vronsky, perhaps, none of whose lovers ended under trains, but some of whom have definitely been emotional train wrecks—added to the meta quality of this particular movie-going experience.
Anna Karenina isn’t just a ballet confettied with words that are spoken more like sequences of musical notes than sentences that have a meaning to which one can attach real emotion. It is a feature-length fashion film, which explains why so many spreads in the glossy women’s magazines, indeed entire collections from designers, have been inspired by this. In that respect, it is supremely successful. I do not want to go to a black-tie event ever again in my life unless everyone there is styled the way they are in Anna Karenina. And if Marc Jacobs shows up in a see-through lace frock, throw him under a train. (Please. Finally. Thank you.)
From the trailer and a six-minute featurette that was doing the rounds online, I was apprehensive that Tom Stoppard’s script was going to be a throwback to one of his earlier, more irritating works like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which he re-imagined Hamlet from the point of view of the actors who put on the play that unmasks Claudius as the culprit behind the old king’s murder. Luckily, the dialogue-as-musical-notes comparison is the most apt I can come up with; Stoppard’s script is as light and fluffy as a taffeta gown, and fits seamlessly with Wright’s direction, and with my buddy “Doctor” Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, which as usual is as whimsical and airy as the most delicate meringue.
I can’t say the same about the sets, which rattle and jolt deliberately from hoists and pulleys and chipped-paint flats backstage to ornate ormolu prosceniums. According to Wright, the entire point of shooting the film in this staged manner is that the Russian aristocracy of the 19th century lived in one continual performance. But I suspect that’s just an excuse to do something drastically different with yet another literary adaptation, in this case yet another adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic (what is this, the twenty-fifth film version of Anna Karenina, or something?). As I can attest—having watched this in a theater just off Park Avenue with my shearling hussar’s jacket at my feet, next to my mother who sneaked in her own Paul Newman’s popcorn in her handbag, which she portioned out on napkins she’d pilfered from the Colony Club, where she plays bridge on Wednesdays and has spent the past week garlanding the grand staircase for the holidays—the aristocracy has always and forever will live life on a stage of one kind or other. The mannerisms, thought processes and mores might change, but the performance of propriety in essence remains the same. Given that by Wright’s own admission he arrived at the idea of doing this filmed-theater style when he could think of no more clever and different way of doing it, then I’m correct in shrugging my shoulders, saying, “Okay, so it’s a conceit. Big deal.” And then reaching into Mum’s popcorn bag and wishing she’d splurged for the theater variety instead of making it herself at home. (There’s a metaphor tucked in there somewhere for Wright’s entire endeavor. I’ll let you dig it out.)
In terms of performance, Keira Knightley is fine, but her neck and facial features are finer, all the better for the myriad anachronistic parures and maquillages she is styled with from scene to scene. Never more than in this film has she been the talking fashion model, but that is all that is expected of her—this is hardly Meryl Steep in The Iron Lady, and Wright is far too preoccupied with the styling and sets to be in the least concerned with performance. Actually, if I didn’t know better, I’d accuse him of being a screaming queen, so heavy handed is he with the fabulous fashion and furnishings.
I’m sure there are dozens of fashion models out there who identified with Knightley’s Anna Karenina and spilled a tear or two afterwards as they clutched their boyfriend’s arms on the way out of the theater, or that’s the sort of thing female models I dated back in the day would have done, before I dropped the pretense and chased male models instead. “You just don’t understand what it’s like… Out there, all the world staring at you, objectifying you, day after day…” they would have said, or those who knew what “objectify” meant would have said.
The one everyone in the film business is keeping an eye on is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the twenty-two-year-old who plays Vronsky, who has to be the mensch of mensches for marrying a woman my age who has undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer, and had a large chunk of her colon removed for cancer there, as well. By all reports they are exceedingly happy together, and I cannot tell you how much I love this story, which has no place in a review, but I cannot help but think about it every time he’s on screen. While we can continue to keep our eye on Taylor-Johnson as an actor, Vronsky isn’t going to be the breakout role for him; like a male ballet dancer, he spends most of the film hoisting around prima ballerina Knightley, waltzing and spinning and lighting cigarettes. Or, if we go with the live-action fashion shoot analogy, he’s a male model, and they are only ever a piece of the scenery. His skills as an actor were shown to better effect in Oliver Stone’s Savages, which is saying a lot—I don’t recall having been terribly fond of that film. In fact, I don’t recall much of it at all, except for Taylor-Johnson outshining Taylor Kitsch. I am very confident Taylor-Johnson is headed for greater things, and he has plenty of time and the right reps to achieve them. So we’ll wait and see.
Jude Law is as unlike himself as you’ve ever seen him, and lends a pathos to Alexei Karenin that I haven’t seen before, but I’ve also not seen most of the twenty-odd previous adaptations. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do much of a costume or facial expression chance from the Sherlock series, although I might be wrong—I didn’t see the last one.
Indeed, I’m not sure why we keep remaking Anna Karenina, what relevance it has to our lives at the beginning of the twenty-first century, unless you’re one of the few society women who will be attending the Met Ball next season and need styling inspiration, to which I would say, “Darling, you’ve got Vera Wang’s number. Just call her and sort it out.” I think it’s wonderful that the film has inspired so many fashion lines this season; I feel great wearing that furry Russian officer-type get-up myself, boots and all. But isn’t it better to be relevant and shoot a drama that examines the stifling intricacies of modern upper-class culture instead? Say, one that riffs on the black sheep article I wrote for Thanksgiving, maybe. Have it open in a movie theater just off Park Avenue with a mother and son who haven’t seen each other in two and a half years sharing Paul Newman’s popcorn on Colony Club napkins that the mother has smuggled in. Perhaps in that story nobody ends up chopped in two under the wheels of a locomotive, but I’ll bet someone with Joe Wright’s skills could make it more compelling than feeling like you’ve spent an hour and a half flipping through dozens of September issues of Vogue with all of the editorial done in a sort of mid-nineteenth-century Russian theme. Not the real thing, mind you. Just sort of real.
By the way, Mum “absolutely loved it.” So there you go.
I, however, am giving it a