Two Movies as Good as their Books, Part I: Anna Karenina


Originally Published January 2013

Heralded by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, and Fyodor Dostoevsky as one of the greatest books of all time, Anna Karenina truly is one-of-a-kind. It’s an atypical love story, brimming with despair and jealousy rather than elation and sentiment. Director Joe Wright has garnered an exceptional cast to bring the beloved tale to life on the big screen.

Leo Tolstoy’s novel tells the stories of the titular character and Konstantin Levin. Anna is married to a highbrow government official and enjoys being amongst the elite; Levin is an affluent recluse who prefers to spend his days holed up in his house. While Levin and Anna are the two main characters, Anna’s story arc is a bit more prevalent. Hers begins when she meets and falls in love with the sly Count Vronsky, and her good reputation is ruined when she decides to embark on a disastrous affair with the man. It’s the perpetual tale of infidelity, careening off into social ostracism and judgment for the philanderer.

But more than anything, Anna Karenina is a meditation on the pursuit of happiness. Anna attempts to find the elusive emotion through passion and imprudence, while Levin searches for it in the form of honest labor and morality. As for the writing style, Tolstoy’s prose isn’t difficult to comprehend, yet it’s in a league of its own in modern literature.

Wright’s vision of the novel is aesthetically charged and visually stunning. His interpretation makes the entire film seem more like an upscale play than a contemplation of love: the ice rink is merely a backdrop, Nikolai’s apartment is actually the dingy rafters of the theater house, and “stagehands” scurry around in between scenes, transitioning the stage from a workplace to an Oriental-style restaurant in the blink of an eye.

Although Keira Knightley could have been a bit more demure in some scenes, her portrayal of Anna is certainly not lacking in vitality. Aaron Johnson, who plays the part of Vronsky, toyed well with the ideal amount of rigidity, while Matthew Macfadyen adds some comedic relief as the philandering Stepan. Jude Law excellently depicts Count Alexei as the piteous, betrayed husband. Newcomer Domhnall Gleeson is a convincing Levin–his anonymity only bolstering his performance. While a star-studded cast draws in audiences at the box office, Knightley and Law are such recognizable faces that their success diminishes the believability of their portrayals.

Wright’s adaptation  transforms an eighteenth-century novel into an artistic, modern film that transcends well. Wright’s vision is only one example of the durability of classic books, and a first-rate one at that. And for those who don’t care much for period pieces, would it help to say that “Anna Karenina” will definitely clean up at the Oscars in the costume design category?

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