What follows is part 2 of a 2 part series on Joe Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina.’ Part 1 can be found here. In the transcription, MB is Max Berwald and EP is Emily Parrish. Emily has read ‘Anna Karenina’ and Max has not.
EP: Hello! I’m here. With orzo and salad.
MB: Rad, I’ve got some vegetable soup and eggnog myself. Emily, what would Tolstoy think of this movie?
EP: I don’t think he would even recognize it as the novel he wrote in the 1870’s. The movie is the Reader’s Digest version of Anna Karenina. Edited by Nicholas Sparks. Now, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; I have nothing inherently against adaptations.
MB: Obviously there are going to be some big crimes of omission though, anytime you’re adapting a 1000+ page book…
EP: Right. And I think the average adaptation is better the more it strays from the original material. After all, you’re transposing mediums, and you have to bring something new to the new medium. And Anna Karenina (the film) totally does that! So, thumbs up to them.
MB: What exactly does Anna Karenina bring to the table? The film.
EP: Definitely something very stylish. And balding Jude Law! I mean, I think many/ most of the performances are great. Even if several are, in my opinion, uneven. (Stiva) And the design aesthetic of the play-within-a-movie was lovely. But, that too is uneven.
MB: Wait– which one is Stiva?
EP: Stiva is mustache man. Shaved in the beginning. Cheats with the governess.
MB: Got it. Mustache man. Can you elaborate on the uneven-ness of that pseudo-stage-play aesthetic?
EP: I think it comes down to lots of solid ideas and talented people coming together to create something that is NOT greater than the sum of its parts. We have Tom Stoppard, who writes a decent script for what would have been a pretty nice period piece, a bunch of acclaimed actors acting their little hearts out (to great effect, I think, most of the time,) a director who’s had some mixed success (but definitely impressed the community with his work,) and a bunch of designers who are totally bringing their A-game.
But the result is exactly all of those things, and nothing more. Does that make sense?
MB: It sounds like the movie isn’t working on an emotional level for you. Or at least not memorably.
EP: Yeah. I thought several scenes, independent of the piece as a whole, were really emotionally successful. But as a whole: not so much.
MB: You read Stoppard’s screenplay for this film before seeing it. Are you familiar with any of Stoppard’s other writing?
EP: I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in high school, and saw a performance of Rock ‘N Roll a few years ago.
MB: With me!
EP: Yeah! The stage aesthetic isn’t written into the script whatsoever, which threw me when I first picked it up. It’s written as a straight period piece, and though it definitely focuses on Anna and Vronsky more than the novel does, it does follow the parallel plot of Levin/Kitty more than the film does. Tonally, it also tends to be darker than the finished film.
Knowing it came from Stoppard, I was surprised at how little the script focused on the philosophical issues that Tolstoy explores in his novel. That’s what Stoppard’s all about! And it’s rather disappointing to see so little of Levin’s emotional/philosophical turmoil on display. He’s a lovesick puppy instead of a vaguely existential protagonist (I hesitate to call him an existential hero) and that makes his little epiphany at the end, in my eyes, totally meaningless.
MB: I feel like a lot of these characters are boiled down to states of emotional “being,” rather than characters going through regular beats, and changing. They do change, but often those changes seem to happen off-screen. It’s almost like Anna Karenina: The Cartoon.
EP: Right, Anna goes from devoted lover to jealous maniac in one scene.
MB: One of the things the stage aesthetic was doing for me, was signaling an abandonment of the real, or the pretense of “authentic” history. Did you experience any of that?
EP: Yeah, I definitely did. My history with the book made me fight to ignore historical inaccuracies, which was unfair to the film. I will say that the film, unlike the book, is NOT AT ALL about Russia. This bothered me a lot, but didn’t actually cause the film any problems. Kudos for that. However, I think this abandonment of reality DOES set the film back in certain areas…
Also, Daniel (boyfriend) is watching the 1990 Ninja Turtles’ movie right now, and it’s… pretty amazing.
MB: That does, in fact, sound amazing. What do we think of Keira Knightly? Not like in general, or her cheekbones, but her performance in this movie?
EP: Oh my God her cheekbones… they win for best performance of the year.
EP: Keira Knightly is pretty much not-terrible, and doing a good job. I think I liked her? She’s got the looks for the part, and for this that’s half the battle. Her shortcomings aren’t really her fault; they’re in the script. And also, in the fact that she was cast in the first place.
MB: What do you mean by that?
EP: Well when she says to Kitty that she remembers “being her age,” the emotional resonance of an older (still young but definitely older) woman mourning the loss of a brief and beautiful moment in her life– that’s completely lost on the audience. Knightly is 27 (I think) and could easily pass as an early twenty-something. She barely looks old enough to be the mother of the actor cast as her son. Her eight-year-old son.
MB: That’s a good point.
EP: So the whole layer of this woman on the far edge of youth, about to enter the dullness of middle age, acting in a fit of boredom, fear of the future, and sudden sexual desire… that’s gone. And only the desire part remains.
MB: All the age dynamics aside, I think I liked her too. I think she’s bringing some interesting stuff to the roll– and there’s a lot of coloring in to do when you have a character like this. The name is huge, but a huge number of people don’t really know anything about Anna Karenina as a character.
Also, if I can go to sort of a gender-place with this discussion, where maybe your experience of the novel can shed new light…
This movie, maybe inadvertently, seems to hold Anna responsible for the greater part of her fate.
MB: She’s not shown to be an amazing, devoted wife at any point. The cruelty of her marriage (forced into it or something) isn’t in the foreground. Or even implied. Jude Law doesn’t exactly seem like a perky, young sex-machine– but also: not an altogether unsympathetic dude. Maybe less metro-studly than he’s ever been on-screen… but he’s never cruel. They hint briefly that he might be over-absorbed in his work? I think that’s the worst thing (besides the receding hairline.) Then Anna has an affair based on her own very real agency and desire. By the end, she sort of can’t handle it.
Now, of course there’s the middle of the movie, and one (kind of striking) scene, where society chews her up and spits her out. It’s a scandal or whatever. But by the end, she is suddenly furiously jealous and, well, then, spoilers aside, she doesn’t handle it well! Am I being cruel? Your thoughts?
EP: Well, really, that’s how it is in the book, to a certain extent. Anna’s emotional shift happens more gradually for sure, but society’s judgement is very much the same. One thing I know they were trying to establish in the film, but that never really got pushed like I think they were trying to push it, is how Anna’s affair isn’t really the bad part of her situation. It’s that she isn’t divorced!
EP: THAT is the bad thing that she’s done. No one, except her husband and a few choice allies, really grudges her the rolls-in-the-hay with her soldier. But the fact that she remains married to her husband– that is really the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And they’re trying to show that in the film: everything hinges on the divorce. That’s the key thing in the novel. The divorce, the divorce, the divorce. And things keep getting in the way of it. And in the film, there are half-hearted attempts to make that the focus, but they really don’t have the time/energy/interest to drag themselves away from ROMANCE! JEALOUSY! FORESHADOWING!
MB: Maybe this would bring sort of, societal/historical problems in the focus rather than the melodrama of it all: bringing the divorce/lack-whereof into focus, that is.
EP: It would. I think at this point in time people can handle romance laced with cultural critique, but the production team seems to think otherwise.
MB: Yeah. This is a big problem for me: that the film sort of abandons historical portraiture, or critique, or even historical portrayal, but then refuses to pick up any real, pressing, modern baggage! It doesn’t have to be a message film, but, in a weird way, this film doesn’t seem relevant to the modern world or to Tolstoy’s world. Sort of a bastard.
EP: JUST LIKE ANNA AND VRONSKY’S CHILD. Sorry.
MB: What happens to the child again?
EP: Uh, Jude Law adopts her and she runs around in a field of flowers THAT TURNS OUT TO BE ON A STAGE. Big reveal.
MB: Apparently you are not only the authority on the novel, but on the plot of the movie that we both sat through. Which is ironic, since it was not I who brought the hard cider.
MB: And what do we make of that on-stage field of flowers? I actually read that as a comment on the stage-aesthetic again where, even though it’s highly mannered and stylized, the filmmakers are insisting that what happens on stage is also truthful, and comes from the world. But maybe it’s better to read it as just a pretty shot than Joe Wright tooting his own cinematic horn…
EP: Oh, well I always read the stage as the presence of Society (big S, aristocrats, etc.) in a scene. So in that scene it could be that the child will be raised the same way her mother was raised– that nothing has changed. Commenting on modern society maybe? But here’s where my issues with the staging come in. Levin’s life in the country is really the only place that is entirely stage-less. Everything else has at least some element that’s included in the stage-aesthetic. But I don’t think enough was really made of Levin’s break with society to make a clear statement about that difference. After reading the novel, I have ideas about it, and it makes sense to me… but the film just flirted with showing Levin’s disdain for Society, which was interpreted shallowly as social awkwardness, and his struggles with morality, religion, love– all of those are boiled down into his winning Kitty over in the end.
MB: Social awkwardness. That’s exactly how it was interpreted! And by brushing it under the rug with him winning Kitty, that actually represents Levin being absorbed into the status-quo/establishment/aristocracy. So there’s another (huge) missed comment there.
MB: He’s kinda a dweeb.
EP: Frankly, he’s a dweeb in the book.
EP: By the end, all his philosophizing is just plain exhausting.
MB: Not the first time I’ve heard someone characterize this novel as exhausting.
EP: …but! He’s a dweeb with depth (in the novel.) He’s an unromantic self-portrait of Tolstoy! In the film, he’s just a high school nerd asking the cheerleader out.
MB: Begging the question, would we voluntarily sit through a high school-ized adaptation of Anna Karenina?
EP: I wouldn’t. Except maybe out of morbid curiosity.
MB: Brave of you. Also, the sex scenes in this movie: tame, or extremely tame?
EP: Extremely tame.
MB: I would endure this next to a parent, which is never a good sign.
EP: But: artfully done.
MB: Wait, is it actually artful though?
EP: They looked like dancing, and fit the stage aesthetic, and I thought they were nice. I have no problem with them. Buuut artful, that may be too high praise I guess. Dance-ish.
MB: They felt like stock close-ups to me.
EP: You know the scene on the picnic blanket? Where they’re doing the “this much? You love me this much” thing?
MB: Oh yeah, that was slightly hot.
EP: In the script, they’re talking about period sex.
MB: Come again?
EP: His hand comes out of her dress with bloody fingers. I was so mad that got cut!
MB: Is that shit from the pen of Tolstoy?
EP: Not at all. The scene starts out with his saying something like “but you’re not supposed to” and her saying something like “but I don’t care!”
MB: Oh my: how empowering!
EP: It had such a nice, contemporary vibe to it without feeling out of place; I was so hoping it would stay.
MB: Yes, I think that is the definition of a timeless issue.