All the world’s a stage is a fairly common euphemism coined by one William Shakespeare. And yet, despite its prevalence, it’s an idea rarely taken to heart by modern day filmmakers who prefer to magnify the “realism” and resist reveling in the theatricality that the medium very much allows. Joe Wright, a man who must have glacier-sized dreams, in challenging himself with the umpteenth re-interpretation of the literary titan Anna Karenina, however, LITERALLY deploys the silver screen as a stage. This is to say the movie itself, as it unfolds, is often taking place on an actual stage – the footlights, the custodian sweeping up the floor below – but still magically brandishing it with all the outsized production values accustomed to a Wright film. In fact, the English accents all the characters sport throughout this Russia-set film simply enhance the experience, lending the air of a London-set production.
The story is recounted with such urgency and vibrancy, as if Wright determined the archaic screenwriting notions of Exterior and Interior would only waste precious time, that it changes scenes within scenes by having curtains rise and fall and doors and windows open and shut. One moment you are sequestered in an ornate St. Petersburg mansion and suddenly without any sort of traditional transition you are “outside” on a wintry pond. If it sounds distracting, rest assured, it is not. It is a sublime way of involving the audience in a century-old story, proving that well-engineered histrionics can augment emotion rather than hinder it.
This Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), sassy in a Tsarist Russia sorta way, is married to the starchy, rule abiding Alexei (Jude Law), many years her senior. It is your typical aristocratic marriage. The god of love, Eros, has long since abandoned our staid, well-dressed couple, but they are still bound by God and, thus, it would be a sin to forsake their unhappiness for happiness. Yet when Anna journeys to Moscow to visit her brother she finds herself tempting her lawful union with cavalry officer and Casanova Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Granted, the Count is expected to propose to young socialite Kitty (Alicia Vikander) but once he has eyes for Anna he can hardly see anyone else.
Their cinematic courtship is less conversationalist than intense rapture – “covered in blue mist” as Anna might say – illustrated by flirtations made epic by Wright’s camera. They trade glances, she from the floor, he from the balcony, and then, suddenly, he is THERE, right behind her, teleported, one might say, by mutual desire. When they dance, the other couples on the floor freeze and as Anna and Vrosky pass by, each couple returns to life, suggesting the soul reviving power of this love affair.
But lest we forget, this is Tolstoy, and so the train whistle of misery can always be heard in the distance. Anna shuns her marriage and, in turn, Alexei shuns his wife. So Anna takes up with Vrosky and the whole of Russian society shuns Anna and once she has been shunned then Vrosky begins to feel shunned although he, unlike her, can still do something about it – namely, leaving Anna by the wayside, an outcast who cannot even so much as accept a program from another man at the opera without the whole crowd gasping at her deplorable coquettishness.
And as the film takes this downturn in the story, so do Wright’s theatrics. Emblematically, this might be the correct decision, but it also betrays the fact that Wright is unable to visually get across his protagonist’s emotion without all the glorious grandeur. Her denouement leaves the audience feeling simply that a story expectation has been fulfilled, not that a life of spiraling tragedy has been lost.
Anna Karenina spends the last half of the film wishing she was still in the first half of the film. Alas, so do we.