“There are as many loves as there are hearts” – Leo Tolstoy.
Anna Karenina, a British adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s acclaimed novel, is an exploration and examination of love in all its forms as it envisions this romantic tragedy as a bold new theatrical epic. From director Joe Wright, who is no stranger to the period set, being well known for his adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. This love story however is set almost entirely within a theatre; a place of performance and moral judgement, and tells the tale of Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) who finds herself at the mercy of the 19th Century aristocratic Russian society.
Anna is married to and has a son with Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), an emotionally detached companion who finds himself increasingly disapproving of his own tolerance. On one fateful trip to Moscow in an attempt to reunite her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), with his wife after he had an affair, Anna locks eyes with the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) which rouses feelings that will soon change her life forever.
Caught in a sensual affair that she believes to be true love, it seems that it is precisely Anna’s actions that come back to haunt her and end up destroying her. Alongside this main narrative and exploration of love as a powerfully destructive passion that is compared to the act of murder, there are relationships and characters that have to be sidelined due to the time limit that a feature film presents. The character of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who so closely resembles that of Tolstoy in his quest to find a greater meaning to life, expresses the gentle and compassionate side to love, whilst Anna’s brother illustrates the amoral acts that love can bring and Karenin portrays the detachment and coldness that love in a double-standard society produces.
Through the originality, choreography and the subversive nature of the set (Tolstoy considered the theatre to be untrustworthy due to the absurdity and vanity present on both sides of the stage), this romantic tragedy portrays how privilege is not necessarily immoral but irrational (as Tolstoy claims) due to the performers that it makes of us. Anna is rejected from society, not because she broke the law, but because she broke the “rules”. The theatre becomes symbolic of our own lives in this philosophically rich production.
However, this hyper-real set with scenes merging together in one space makes it hard for the audience to focus directly on the narrative. This style of filmmaking, merging the theatre with film, may foreground strong philosophical views expressed by Tolstoy through this novel, but does mean that the attention of the audience is constantly refocused on the set as they try to figure out where they are, rather than identifying with the emotions of the characters.
Despite this distraction of the films original style and a few shaky performances by some cast members, this adaptation proves to deliver a heart-felt and deeply moving romantic tragedy that challenges the “rules” of our society.