If any one person is responsible for reintroducing Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to a generation of readers all too content to label it as “insurmountable,” it’s Oprah Winfrey. She chose the book in May of 2004 as part of her book club, an unprecedented pick for two reasons: for one, she hadn’t read the book before assigning it, an Oprah’s Book Club first. Second, the book centers on an adulterous wife of a bureaucrat and the societal repercussions she faces in 19th century aristocratic Russia, a far, privileged cry from the Toni Morrison novels that frequently grace Oprah’s list. The novel is certainly a masterpiece, but Oprah did more than revive interest in a classic—she helped revive the market for translated literature. Anna Karenina the movie, then, is a translation of a translation, suggesting an even cruder derivation than most film adaptations. Yet director Joe Wright’s big budget drama doesn’t pretend to be faithful to the reader, a task that may actually be insurmountable. Instead, Anna Karenina is faithful to the moviegoer, reveling in the power of cinematic aesthetics on par with Tolstoy’s original prose.
Anna Karenina’s simple plot structure belies its reputation as an impenetrable and dense novel (Tisch film professors should use it as a paragon of how to construct an A story and B story). The main plot, of course, centers on Anna (Keira Knightley), a married aristocrat who begins an affair with the much-too-mustachioed Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When she confesses her secret to her husband Alexey (a wildly unsexy Jude Law), he ain’t even mad! He does, however, inform her about the politics of divorce and urges her to end the affair to avoid a public scandal. Vronsky’s mustache has never looked tastier.
The subplot that lurks behind Anna’s indiscretions is much more wholesome by comparison, its quiet romance sometimes overshadowed by the icy love triangle that dominates the movie. Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner of simple tastes, is in love with Kitty Shcherbatsky, a young princess with her eye on Count Vronsky as well. In the movie, Levin is clearly the superior choice in terms of facial hair and principles, but of all the characters that make the leap from literature to cinema, he is the one who is clearly shortchanged. Maybe it’s because he represents a kind of outmoded morality: he finds satisfaction in hard work and productivity and rejects social performance for its own sake. But Levin is perhaps the richest and most thoroughly developed character in Tolstoy’s novel—a semi-autobiographical version of Tolstoy himself—and yet the screenplay fails to capitalize on this. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay manages to include the most pivotal scenes of Anna’s storyline while barely skimming over Levin’s brilliant philosophical arguments and beliefs, a great disservice to the audience. If Anna is the story’s anti-hero, then Levin is undoubtedly the hero, an idea not quite apparent in the movie version.
That raises the question of faithfulness: is Anna Karenina faithful to Anna Karenina, and is that even a appropriate benchmark for success? Past adaptations have taken the realist approach to the novel, with the 1997 remake even going on location to Russia. From the first scene, Joe Wright’s reimagining shows us that there are many ways to be faithful: Anna’s brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) receives a shave from a barber on an empty stage. The theater, the exposed stagecraft, the one-dimensional scenery that hangs in the background—this is the setting of Anna Karenina, and it’s a creative, memorable interpretation of one of the novel’s main themes: we are never without an audience. After all, Anna can only create a spectacle of herself if there are those around to judge her. With a framework that exposes the theatricality of it all, the idea of faithfulness seems irrelevant or at least opens it up to new meanings.
For the detractors of such visual cleverness, there are many previous adaptations of Anna Karenina that adhere more strictly to the novel. The newest Anna Karenina adaptation is smarter than its predecessors because it rests on the notion that film and literature are not equivalent mediums, nor should they be considered as such. Yes, Anna Karenina the movie is a translation, but it speaks the language of cinema fluently. And for whatever reason, it speaks with a British accent.