Rex Reed pointed to perhaps the best criticism of the new adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, a criticism that is over 100 years old. On 18 September 1905, James Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus about Tolstoy: "He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical." Wright's film of Anna Karenina is often dull, often stupid, sometimes tired, sometimes pedantic, and literally theatrical.
I have a fundamental problem with any adaptation of Tolstoy's novel. If someone (e.g., William Faulkner, F.R. Leavis) were to tell me that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written, I would not disagree. Not having read all of the novels ever written, I'm not in a position to rank them, but I've certainly never read a better novel than Anna Karenina (and I've read War & Peace, — but for all its glories and wonders, it falls apart at the end, so Anna has a point up on it there). Additionally, Konstantin Levin is just about my favorite character in any novel.
Much of what I love about the book and its characters is not, though, its drama. One of the things that distinguishes Anna Karenina for me is that it doesn't work as anything but a novel, because novels can encompass, enliven, and embody so many discourses: dramatic, yes, but also philosophical, journalistic, political, historical... It takes genius to do the same with a dramatic genre, a play or a film, and Joe Wright is not a genius.
Alas, though I've seen more than my fair share of the many adaptations of Anna Karenina, none has struck me as getting very much of a glimmer of what makes the book so marvelous. My favorite is the 1935 version, mostly because of Greta Garbo and the fine cinematography of William Daniels. As with most of the adaptations, the 1935 focuses primarily on Anna and her affair with Vronsky, but despite my love of Garbo I find it all grows tedious because Fredric March is so utterly uninteresting as Vronsky (and at least 10 years too old) and Basil Rathbone plays Karenin as such a caricature that it's often unintentionally humorous. The script had a difficult time getting through Joseph Breen's censorship office, leading to an adaptation that is mostly chaste and staid.* (Garbo is magnificent, but that goes without saying.)
Wright's Anna Karenina begins promisingly, introducing an anti-realistic conceit in which all the events take place in a theatre — and not just the stage, but the orchestra, balconies, and wings. It's as if Wright had set himself up to adapt a Nabokov novel and ended up with Anna Karenina at the last minute. While utterly un-Tolstoyan, it does at least give the film some energy and inventiveness. Additionally, the film begins with Matthew Macfadyen, who is perfectly cast as Stiva. Every moment Macfadyen is on screen is delightful, and the character is quite faithful to Tolstoy's original. An early scene in his office, with robot-precise clerks, is great fun and also redolent of an earlier film scripted by Stoppard, Brazil. Unfortunately, Wright doesn't seem to know what to do with the theatrical conceit, and he moves in and out of it without, as far as I could tell, any good reason, though this may just be a failure of attention on my part. It is hard to maintain attention on the film, because so much of it is just so tedious, with a plodding clunkiness to most of the scenes. I had to keep reminding myself that Stoppard had written this, because little of the intellect, complexity, playfulness, and lightness of touch that we generally associate with Stoppard as a writer was present. Taking a glance at a draft of the script, the fault seems to me mostly Wright's. At least when Fassbinder took Stoppard's adaptation of Nabokov's Despair and turned it into a very Fassbinder and very un-Stoppard and un-Nabokov movie in its feel, he did so by absorbing it into his own style and concerns. Wright doesn't seem to have any concerns, so what he has is a mishmash of style to no purpose. Sometimes it looks nice, sometimes it's at least momentarily interesting, but it's all too random and off the shelf. For a simple comparison, see how a theatrical conceit can add to the power and meaning of films made by two of the greatest directors ever to work in the cinema: Lola Montès (Ophuls) and The Golden Coach (Renoir). Comparing a pedestrian filmmaker like Wright to Ophuls and Renoir is like comparing Tolstoy to Terry Brooks, but such exemplary uses of theatricality highlight just how shallow Wright's choices are.
What of Keira Knightley, our Karenina? She's not as terrible as she could have been. Given the film that she had to be in, she seemed to me to do as well as anyone could be expected to, and I can't think of another actress who would have moved the film from being a patchwork dud to something smarter and more engaging. Some of her scenes with Karenin, played quite well by Jude Law, are interesting, but that's mostly because Stoppard and Wright seem to have wanted to give Karenin a bit more depth than he's gotten in other feature film adaptations, so those scenes are given the time and seriousness they need to build into something. On the other hand, the scenes with Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are mostly awful. Vronsky is in many ways the most difficult character to pull off, because it's easy for him to be little more than a dumb pretty boy (or, as played by Fredric March, a plodding middle-aged man). The observational dramatism of film especially struggles with such a character. Taylor-Johnson gives it a good shot, and is sometimes successful, particularly toward the end of the movie, at showing Vronsky's evolution, but he's not given enough to work with, and Wright is frequently tone-deaf in his staging of the scenes between Anna and Vronsky.
And then there's my beloved Levin. You might think it would be good thing for the story of Levin and Kitty to be given more time than it is in other adaptations (I don't know of one that's not a tv mini-series that gives him much, if any, time at all). That would be true, if the filmmakers were actually interested in him. However, they are only apparently interested in Levin as a symbol of some sort. The casting of Domhnall Gleeson in the role is the first sign that Wright isn't much interested in the character Tolstoy created, because the Levin of the novel is described as having a large build, strong shoulders, and a curly beard. This is not a description one could fit to Gleeson in the film, despite his beard. Certainly, no movie needs to capture every physical detail from a novel, and actors of very different build and physicality from a description could still give a powerful performance, but Levin's largeness and strength seem especially important to his characterization, particularly once he's out in the fields working with the peasants. The meaning is quite different if he is a small-framed, weak-shouldered man working in the fields, clearly out of his element, than if he is a man who looks like he could physically fit right in and is distinguished from the peasants purely by the circumstances of his birth. Worse, though, Levin suffers the same problem as the portrayal of Vronsky: most of the life and richness he possesses in the novel isn't translated into the performance or its staging. It's okay for Vronsky to be a bit bland, so long as he's pretty, because his blandness is a part of his character, but Levin is such a vivid, richly imagined person that it's heartbreaking (in a bad way!) for him to be so often little more than a holy fool in the film.
It's okay that this Anna Karenina is not Tolstoy's. We have Tolstoy's, and it is superior to any possible adaptation. But it's unfortunate that this film is not more enlightening, more thoughtfully clever rather than just cleverly clever, more, at least, entertaining.
*It's an interesting comparison to Garbo's earlier outing as Anna Karenina in the 1927 silent film Love (also shot by Daniels) where she was paired with perhaps the only great love of her life, John Gilbert. Their relationship had reached a complex and quite public moment by then, one that at least partly motivated the title change of the movie: the studio reportedly got very excited at the idea of making posters and publicity materials reading, "Gilbert & Garbo in Love!" It's less epic than the 1935 adaptation, and less faithful to Tolstoy, but there are some lovely scenes. Unfortunately, the only readily available version I know of is the Warner Archive DVD, which features an atrocious soundtrack recorded at a live performance of the score where an audience of idiots had a great time laughing at every close-up. The sound can be turned off, but the other flaw of the Warner disc is that it only includes the happy ending, while some television broadcasts have included both that ending and the alternate, more-accurate-to-Tolstoy end.