Despite all the reservations expressed in my preview of this film, I am thrilled and astonished to find that the film is really rather wonderful. Credit all round, to director, screenplay writer and actors. Against all the odds, it's a triumph of imagination.
The key to the success of the film is the decision to set it (at least partially) in a theatre. Previous cinema and television adaptations have made the mistake of trying to treat the material in a heavy handed and literal way. Which is understandable, but the reason that Tolstoy is such a great author is not the story, but the manner in which the story is treated. This is impossible to reproduce on film, and so Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright's admirable flash of genius allows the whole enterprise to be a lot more fun, without losing sight of the romance and the drama.
The issue of women wanting to be unfaithful to their husbands but being constrained by society's disapproval is a historical phenomenon which we are mercifully mostly rid of. But as with Madame Bovary (written in 1856) and Dorothea Casaubon in Middlemarch (written in 1874 just as Anna Karenina was being published in serial form), Tolstoy's masterpiece is about a woman's desire to have everything, and ending up with nothing. Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to the dull and worthy Karenin (Jude Law). She meet Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) a young cavalry officer, and the attraction is immediate and mutual. Meanwhile, Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) is vainly wooing Kitty (Alicia Vikander) whose head has been turned by Vronsky's seduction. Other characters include Stiva (Matthew McFadyen), Anna's brother, and Stiva's wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) who has to put up with Stiva's infidelities.
Adapting a book which is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest ever written is like walking across a minefield in a blindfold with your shoes on the wrong feet. How wise then, of Joe Wright to choose Stoppard. The mood from the outset is jaunty and artificial, which perfectly matches the shallow nature of Russian society. People do nothing but dress up, and move from one social occasion to another, where the same people are to be found. Flirtations and affairs are a dime a dozen, but there are rules to be observed, the first of which is that it doesn't become serious, and the second is, keep it secret. Anna and Vronsky break both those rules, and suffer as a result.
I have rarely come across a film in which there are so many actors I dislike, and yet by the end of it (or even halfway through), I had nothing but praise for them. First and foremost is Keira herself. Playing Anna Karenina is a major challenge, yet she succeeds triumphantly. As a cinema actress, she is quite extraordinarily beautiful and the camera adores her. Yet more than that, she conveys a range of emotions I haven't seen from her before – exuberance, motherly love, frustration, passion, despair. She is really really good. Nor have I ever been a Jude Law fan; yet as Karenin he conveys the dullness of the man, as well as his humanity, his cruelty and his helplessness in the face of the tragedy that has destroyed him. Third on my hate list is Matthew McFadyan who made an amazingly unsexy Darcy opposite Keira in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice. As Stiva, he is like Kevin Kline's younger brother (in a good way), full of zip and zest and charm and superficial regret at his own infidelities.
Some critics have picked on Aaron Taylor-Johnson for being too lightweight to play Vronsky. But I think this is unfair. In Tolstoy's novel, Vronsky is essentially lightweight. He's a kind of toyboy, gorgeous to look at, and full of puff and conceit, but a little boy underneath, knocked sideways by his passion for Anna, then unable to cope as she disintegrates in the face of a cruel world.
I hope I have persuaded to set aside whatever reservations you might have, and go and see this film. Even though Levin and Kitty are relegated to more of a subsidiary role than they have in the book, their story is followed faithfully, and both Gleeson and Vikander are excellent. The costumes, set pieces and dialogue are all delightful, and there are so many other little touches which work. Above all, there is an overarching intelligence behind the film, which has taken a bold decision to stage the film in a certain way, and has then followed through on that idea wholeheartedly. Its a rare treat.