The novel was published in the mid-1870s, but how old is Anna Karenina herself? The book places her around 28, though the husband, Karenin, is 20 years her senior. There was a film in 1935, with Garbo, who was 30 at the time, and Basil Rathbone as Karenin, when he was 42. That’s a fair gap, but what was better still, those two seemed to have aged and grown bitter in their marriage. There was another version, in 1948, with Vivien Leigh (35) and Ralph Richardson, who was 46.
This time, we have Keira Knightley, 27, and Jude Law, who is 40. Law wears receding hair as Karenin and he tries to move stiffly and give an impersonation of a dry bureaucrat. But Jude Law is always going to seem mischievous, I suspect, and Keira Knightley is, if nothing else (and that case is open), a bright-eyed babe. As her Anna Karenina opens in theatres, she is appearing topless on the cover of Allure magazine. Despite her outstanding and courageous work in A Dangerous Method, and her promise in one or two other films, Allure may be a more natural habitat for her than Tolstoy.
So the indefatigable picture business has attempted Anna Karenina once more, no matter that it has been filmed a dozen times already, proving how easily a great novel can feel like a novelette when put on the screen for a couple of hours. Sir Tom Stoppard has been hired in for the adaptation this time, and he has done what every screenwriter has had to do in the past—cut out miles of Tolstoy. But Sir Tom is a respectable literary figure, so he has done his best by the Levin-Kitty story, even if many viewers will be asking why the film keeps edging away to this uninteresting pair and putting them in natural surroundings, instead of maintaining director Joe Wright’s concept-heavy scheme of having the vicious, corrupt but very well-dressed Russian high society on stage most of the time.
This Anna is the most atrocious because it is far and away the most afflicted by what Gogol and Nabokov called “poshlost”—an empty straining for vulgar effect. The idea of filming many scenes as if they were on stage is a dire gimmick that amply illustrates Wright’s own comment, when asked why some of his films (Atonement, say) had had long tracking shots: “Basically I like showing off.” There was a time when the tracking shot was a thing of beauty and meaning—I am thinking of Max Ophuls, Anthony Mann, Kenji Mizoguchi, Michelangelo Antonioni—but for Wright it has been a way of crying, “Look at me! I’m directing.” Wright likes to underline his every effect; he goes for bizarre angles because he dreads boredom, or ordinariness; he has the sensibility of a man most at home making commercials (Wright has collaborated with Knightley on some Chanel ads). The staginess is mannered, tiresome and a way of distracting us from the absence of that essential passion that turns Anna from being a regular member of society to a maddened self-destructive.
In his novel, Tolstoy never lost his grasp of a decent bourgeois woman, supposedly well placed as wife and mother, who notices somewhere close to 30 the pale flame that has seldom warmed her. It’s acceptable for Anna to be beautiful, but her first blush of youth has gone, to say nothing of young hopes. She has had a child; she endures an unrewarding marriage in a moribund society—in the novel, of course, Levin and Kitty are vital because of the alternative life and society they are trying to make. Anna has to be of a mood that feels the downhill slope ahead. She is sad, a little tired and depressed, and on the point of discovering her own sense of doom. That’s what the death of the railway track worker is meant to uncover in her—and it’s a scene Wright covers in far too much hurry.
Actual age is not as important as the level of palpable experience. Garbo and Leigh were both childless when they did their Anna, but they had a weight of experience that was just beginning to edge their famous beauty with foreboding. I know little of Keira Knightley’s life, but onscreen she is dazzlingly pretty and cockahoop. Why not? She is supposedly one of the best-paid actresses in the world. We have all learned to spell her name. She is on the cover of Allure! She gets to do Anna Karenina way before she is ready—if she ever will be. But probably her name was crucial in funding this picture, though in all the money spent, no one has sought to get her voice to stop oddly drifting between South Kensington and Battersea. That voice is as untidy as her dresses are immaculate.
Who might it have been? Well, I never asked anyone to do another Anna Karenina, and I have little hope of there ever being an adequate adaptation. Isn’t that what books are for? Still I can think of actresses available who might have been more convincing and touching: Marion Cotillard, Claire Danes, Rachel Weisz, etc. Actresses who have got past the pleasure of looking happy and bright and successful.
But I have not mentioned the gravest shortcoming of this attempt: Vronsky. This must be a man who has lived enough to be masking despair in womanizing. Don’t tell me the movie business doesn’t know that type. He needs to have a hard sexual edge, and a cynical worldliness that is still swept away by Anna. They need chemistry and helpless impulse. Sean Bean once played the role (with Sophie Marceau as Anna), and Garbo had Fredric March as her Vronsky, just a year or two away from his fatalistic Norman Maine in A Star is Born. As if aware that Knightley seems very young, Wright found a Vronsky who is just 22-years-old: Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He is more pretty than handsome, fair-haired with a mustache that seems to have required all his creative energy. Try as he might, the actor can’t escape the aura of a dead-eyed cad. We never feel he cares for Anna or knows that he must abandon her.
Without the emotional guts of the novel, Stoppard and Wright have done the only thing they can think of. They presume that Anna has never had good sex. That’s a reasonable enough assumption, but the sun-drenched naked scenes are so stylized and pretty (and so hard to see as collaborative acts) they have no heat or ugliness. (Anna and Vronsky shouldn’t be simply rhapsodic when they get it on.) There’s one shot where Anna comes (I think), but if you’re going to be bound by the notion that movies have to be visual, and do the sex that Tolstoy would never have dreamed of doing, you might as well take a hint from Allure, and let Keira be Keira.
So can we somehow make a bargain with the film world: no more Anna Kareninas? You’re making idiots of yourselves.