The sense of dread that saturates the new version of “Anna Karenina” initially stems not so much from impending tragedy but the apprehension that the entire cast is about to burst into song.
Director Joe Wright has literally staged significant stretches of the movie, with proscenium arches, supertitles, dreamy mattes and, overhead, stagehands on catwalks.
Waiters, maids, footmen, even the occasional strolling tuba player and clarinetist wend their ways through crowded restaurants, mansions or stations. Orchestras and folk singers apparently hover somewhere just beyond the edges of the frame, performing Dario Marianelli’s excellent score.
They all seem to be expecting Hugh Jackman.
What they get, though, is a whiz-bang skate through Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling yet meticulous classic. As might be expected from playwright Tom Stoppard, the script condenses the story but distills every possible epigram from it, supporting them with some believably human moments amid the deliberate artifice.
The director, and his screenwriter, get invaluable support from frequent collaborator Keira Knightley as anti-heroine Anna, Jude Law as her upright but older husband Karenin, and Domhnall Gleeson as Kostya Levin, rural estate owner and hapless suitor of girlish Princess Kitty Shcherbatskaya.
Especially in its second half, these players project strong emotions, wrestling with logic and morality, and bring to life some of the reality of 19th Century Russian society as detailed by Tolstoy in his novel, described by William Faulkner, among others, as “the best ever written.”
Fans of the author may be wondering how pregnant views of toy trains, dancers paused in mid-step or literal footlights serve this social realism in his narrative. The answer is: haphazardly.
Many of the sets are quite beautiful in themselves, and some perform valuable functions. As the camera follows Levin offstage into the wings, the buzz of offstage activity suggests the larger cities beyond the dinner parties and ballrooms of the nobility and their well-off friends.
At another point, screens at the rear of the stage slide aside and the camera follows Levin out into the real world, the snowy countryside of his home. It is a startling transition, which reaffirms the movie’s division between the bubble of high society and the working world of woodcutters and threshers.
With other scenes taking place at the opera, the stage translates seamlessly from idealized to actual setting for the action. The idea, as Knightley recently explained to our Paula Schwartz, is that performing is “what being socialized is.” In the hothouse world of late empire St. Petersburg, all the glitterati must play their parts in order to maintain their class’ collective illusions.
Stepping outside the social order, for instance into a public affair with a handsome cavalry officer, simply isn’t done if you want to maintain your spot in the pecking order. In the preceding sentence, the important word is “public.”
So it is at least theoretically plausible to present overtly the theatrical aspects of this social order on stage, producing a hybrid of movie and play. In a key sense, though, it is also a cheat. In live theater, Knightley’s keyed-up intensity and Law’s battle between stoic decency and rage could be electric, an evening worth remembering.
Without that immediacy, the actors are still effective but the stagey aspects sometimes intrude into the film, interrupting the rhythm building through the performances. Some of the extraneous bits may look interesting in themselves, but contribute little to the narrative. A few are just silly.