Thursday, November 22, 2012
An adaptation of the late 19th-century Russian classic about the consequences of love outside of marriage.
That is not the best description of the plot of Anna Karenina, but it's hard to think of a one or two-sentence summary. The novel is sprawling, exploring both the cultural as well as political state of Russia at the time of its writing. Characters constantly act as mirrors for each other--Anna and her brother Stiva showing the consequences of infidelity for men versus women, Anna and Levin showing the pursuit of love inside and outside of marriage, Levin and Karenin showing social change from within the government as opposed to in their daily lives--and that doesn't even begin to touch on the myriad love triangles. The novel is neither small nor simplistic, and, I would say, an absolute delight.
How then to adapt it to the screen and do it in such a way that makes sense 135 years after the novel?
Wright (director) and Stoppard (screenwriter) seemingly decided to abandon any pretense of even telling the story from the novel. Oddly enough, I think that decision works even though the film ultimately doesn't.
They didn't film the novel. Instead of, for instance, having a scene at a train station filmed at a train station (or on a set made up to look like one), much of the movie is set in an abandoned theater. The drama of the film literally happens onstage but also travels backstage, into the rafters, all over. The choreography and set design done to accomplish this is worth the price of admission alone. The first half hour plays out like Moulin Rouge! without the flash and manic energy. Instead there's an unrelenting balletic grace in every move. It was so well done that I was actually disappointed when Levin returned to his estate and it became him actually working the fields at his estate--the first point where it looked like a normal movie.
With all the effort put into the set design and choreography, the storytelling suffered. The movie seemed to relate the story of Anna Karenina in shorthand, with nods to all the plot elements as though the audience will just know what's happening--especially regarding Levin's working the fields with his serfs and Anna's breakdown over being increasingly isolated from society. Which I think is the point. You're supposed to have read the book before seeing this film. There's a moment where a character tells Anna she wouldn't dream of leaving her operetta so early, and I think that's the key to understanding this adaptation--it is not a straight adaptation, it's the story done as opera, but without filming an opera. The characters aren't acting, they're aware of their presence in a story, and since they know the story it's assumed you do too.
Does that make sense?
My inability to successfully describe the film, frankly, is the problem with the film. I actually don't mind the movie having the assumption I know the source material. Rather than tell the story, it's stepping forward and saying, "We all know this story, so how can we make it new? What else can film do?" Only it doesn't go far enough. When the rear walls of the stage literally part and Levin steps onto the snow-covered fields of his estate, that's when the movie loses its nerve, when the movie returns to standard filmic methods. It should have stayed within the theater the whole time, forever contrasting the artifice of Russian society with the reality of Anna and Vronsky's love through the dissonance of the realistic sets being constantly subverted by the stage itself. Then I could say that this was experimental film as costume drama or vice versa. As it is, Anna Karenina is an abjectly gorgeous film with stunning choreography that ultimately left me cold. It moves well and is definitely worth seeing on the big screen just for the majesty of it, but it's not something you can get lost in.