It is not as obviously absurd to film Anna Karenina as it is, say, to mime Beethoven’s Ninth. But at a certain point, the scale differential between a novel and a film amounts to an unbridgeable gulf. Tolstoy does not give you the option of extracting his tragic Anna from her tragedy-inducing context: if you want to put her on a screen, you need to get a universe of detail up there with her.
Many have tried. At least two dozen women have played Anna on screen over the past century, including Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. To say that Keira Knightley is no Garbo is like saying an asteroid is no supernova; I have never seen her in a film without pining for a different casting decision. But she’s adequate in this role, and that’s all she needs to be, because she has such good fortune in the people around her.
This includes an improbable number of supporting actors giving career-best performances; Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson all excel themselves as the significant men in Anna’s life. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and designers Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer confer a lush, expansive beauty on the film’s every fleeting frame – a necessary balance to the dizzying energy and momentum director Joe Wright gives the story.
Wright deserves praise for his achievement here, but he can’t take credit for the brilliant conceit that lets this film soar where other Anna Kareninas have trudged. For that, look to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.
How can you transplant the soul of such a vast book to a new medium? You can’t. So instead, borrow some fizz from the adaptation process itself, by flipping between two different kinds of adaptation: film a theatrical staging of the story, which keeps bursting out of its frame and turning into full-fledged cinema.
It seems an unlikely idea on the face of it, but just watch Stoppard dance. He finesses the crushing compression required to fit Tolstoy to the screen, so that he gains something as precious as what he has to sacrifice: the film feels fresh and alive, and at every turn it has the capacity to surprise.
ANNA KARENINA, directed by Joe Wright
Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing