Dir. Joe Wright
“All the world’s a stage,” a famous British playwright once wrote, and it appears another, somewhat more contemporary, famous British playwright has taken the words to heart. In Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s achingly brilliant novel, the Moscow and St. Petersburg characters move in an out of a dizzying array of props and sets — placed on a stage with obvious backdrops, moving up in the rigging of the catwalks, interspersed with extras, prop masters and frozen moments in time — it is only out in the purity of the true Russian countryside that these excessive theatricalities are dispensed with, and the characters allowed to interact freely with one another in a natural setting.
You can easily take Stoppard’s point — those characters subjected to the laws and whims of high society are endlessly performing on stage — be it as young of-age women, attempting to play the field and select the husband they most desire, as young Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), breaking the heart of desperate young rural landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) in the process. Vronsky, however, has plans other than Kitty on his mind: the stunning Anna (Keira Knightley), a woman married to a most respectable St. Petersburg official (Jude Law). When the two fall in love, it sets in motion a tragic series of events all of which eventually fall upon the head of the formerly virtuous Anna.
The film’s conceit — not unlike Louis Malle’s wonderful Vanya on 42nd Street — is to make the characters utterly unaware of the theatrical manipulations going on around them, helpfully moving aside as new sets are swept in, accepting the sudden frozen forms of dancers around them as they gaze into the eyes of their beloveds. It’s also more or less in keeping with one of the themes Tolstoy incorporated into his novel: The idea that society entraps us, and it is only through hard work, self-reflection, and honesty that we can truly find ourselves and be happy. His touchstone in this regard is Levin, who moves on from Kitty’s bitter and humiliating rejection of him in Moscow to something that transcends all the duplicitousness of the city folk all around him.
Still, as successful as Stoppard’s giant risk becomes, the film falls prey to another complication of adapting such a dense and layered novel to the screen. Tolstoy’s book, engorged with prose, filled with asides, digressions and the rich fullness of his characters, simply cannot be whittled down to a relatively scant 130 minute film, even one as well-acted and art directed as this.
Tragedy is powered by our knowledge of its imminent overtaking, the train that we cannot stop, powering towards us in the darkness, a literary truism that Tolstoy maximized in his work. Here, though, Anna’s emotional upheaval comes at us far too quickly; Levin’s ascension carries little of the thrilling exaltation of the novel; and Vronsky’s nature is barely regarded (to say nothing of some peculiar casting decisions: Anna, a mature woman with a pre-adolescent son, is played by a wisp of a woman who appears to be in her early 20’s and vain, reckless Vronsky is played by an actor with little of the character’s gravity and egocentrism); to say nothing of all the lost moments of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), Anna’s food-loving brother; and Levin’s reflections on the growing political revolution. Despite their best efforts, Stoppard and Wright simply can’t substantiate the breadth of the novel; and without that, it loses a great deal of its considerable power.
The film is reduced to a creative showcase, a grand artistic gambit that pays off, but for a measly return on its investment. A bit ironic then, that the giant risk the filmmakers take with the novel works flawlessly, but the nuts-and-bolts of the book remain ever elusive.