As if adapting Anna Karenina wasn’t challenge enough, screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright have added another burden to their chore: they’ve confined the Tolstoy tale within a 17th-century theater, so that most scenes take place backstage, in the rafters, in the mezzanine or on the stage itself.
It’s a bold move, especially in terms of staging and production design. As the aristocratic Anna (Keira Knightley) negotiates duty, passion and social convention in 1874 Russia, she does so within a series of immaculately arranged tableaus (I would love to know this film’s candle budget). Instead of cutting from one scene to another, a character will often stand up and begin walking to another part of the theater, with background actors busily rearranging the set as they go. It must have been a thrill to design, build and manipulate this grand space. Whether the technique serves the story is another matter.
In a way, the strategy recalls the elemental focus of something like Lars von Trier’s Dogville, in which everything took place on a bare soundstage (the walls of buildings were designated by lines drawn on the floor). Yet Anna Karenina is hardly a stripped-down affair. Indeed, within its confined setting, the movie is ornate and sumptuous. All of the finery is so meticulously arranged, it sometimes brings to mind the intricate fussiness of a Wes Anderson production (if Anderson was obsessed with great Russian literature rather than the Kinks).
There’s no getting around the fact that Johnson is disastrous.
I’m not sure what all of this fuss adds to the narrative, however. If anything, the theater setting limits the movie’s scope. This is already a severely abbreviated adaptation, given that Stoppard and Wright have chosen to jettison the spiritual and sociological threads of Tolstoy’s novel almost entirely. That pretty much leaves a tragic romance, and confining it to a theater setting – no matter how elaborately designed – only makes the reduction more felt.
I don’t hold it against the film that it barely acknowledges the sweep of Tolstoy’s novel. A complete movie adaptation of Anna Karenina is probably impossible, and anyway, aristocratic affairs have always done better at the box office than spiritual crises and farming techniques. And so the anguished landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), whom Tolstoy devotes almost as many pages as he does Anna, is here reduced to a country-bumpkin figure. Meanwhile, the majority of the narrative focuses on the doomed romance between Anna – wife of a government bureaucrat (Jude Law) and mother of a small boy – and Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), a much younger nobleman and playboy soldier.
There’s no getting around the fact that Johnson is disastrous. So good as a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, here the kid doesn’t have a chance. With a floppy blond afro and a thin mustache, he recalls nothing less than ’70s-era Gene Wilder (it’s like watching Willy Wonka try to keep a straight face while doing dinner theater). Boyishly eager and oddly smiley, Johnson is the lightest presence in every scene, a problem considering Vronsky is supposed to be the irresistibly virile figure for whom Anna sacrifices her respectability.
Which brings me to their scenes together. Knightley is too light for the part of Anna as well, but working that dark glower of hers for all it’s worth, she’s passable. Yet not even that can save her in the scenes with Johnson. As a couple, they’re not just odd – they’re weightless. Which is a problem considering this Anna Karenina has put all its eggs in the romance basket.