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Anna Karenina, life and theater

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Just after a crucial event in ANNA KARENINA (Joe Wright, 2012), Anna’s stuffy bureaucrat husband Karenin (Jude Law) reflects on the debate about horse racing. It’s dangerous, he says, but it might be worth it for the spectacle. It’s hard not to see in his words a thesis statement for this latest film version of Tolstoy’s adulterous tale. The first half-hour especially has much in common with a horse race, hurtling forward at a break-neck pace, defying inertia and gravity alike, but seemingly always on the verge of a perilous fall. It’s exhilarating but you know it could stumble at any time.

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The story, in case it needs repeating, revolves around a few different unhappy families. Stiva Oblonsky routinely cheat on his wife, Dolly, and his sister Anna Karenina is called upon to mend their marriage. She meets a dashing army officer, Vronsky, who was – together with introspective country man Levin – courting Dolly but starts ardently pursuing the married Anna. She finally gives in. It does not end well – Michael Phillips memorably described it as a “girl meets boy, girl meets train” story.

This is no ordinary adaptation, however. Not here the sedate illustrated tableaux that usually come with with the territory, and certainly no trace of the timidity often found in treatments of classic literature. From the opening, where Oblonsky from one house into the next through a doorway, space and time compressed, it’s clear realism is not a factor here. When the horse Frou-Frou stumbles, it is from the stage into the orchestra box. A strange hybrid of operette and film, the movie puts rhythm before plot, style before – sure – substance, an appeal to the senses first, to the heart only second.

It’s a little disappointing, then, that after a gasp-inducing crescendo that culminates in a majestic ball sequence with Kitty in virginal white and Anna black like a raven, a vertiginous sequence that conveys almost without words how a man falls in love with a woman and out of love with another, the movie seems content to settle down into a victory lap. There is still the occasional flourish, a little sprint or caper every now and then, but like the furious love between Vronsky and Anna, the energy of the first half hour simply cannot be sustained.

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This adaptation, then, is not well suited for those who want to swoon at the love story and not just at the decor. Who want to feel the anguish of love instead of admiring how the costumes reflect that anguish. The casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who makes it impossible to truly understand why Anna is willing to surrender her life to him, might be a calculated move: in a film where symbols stand in for feelings (along with everything else), his thin mustache, bright blue eyes and crisp uniform are just signifiers of a more exciting life. Perhaps Anna’s fate was sealed the moment she married Karenin – sooner or later, someone would have come along who promised something more, something less constrictive. The many lace veils imprisoning her face certainly seem to suggest as much, framing her as a bird in a gilded cage, unaware that she cannot survive outside.

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As with all creative gambits, this one will either work for you or not. It is admittedly easy to dismiss as cold and facile, empty posturing without a soul. Those who enjoy seeing a well-known work stripped bare and built back up, however, might appreciate the vibrancy and sense of urgency that Wright infuses the material with. What’s more, in this age of HD and 3D and “hyper-real” 48fps, ANNA KARENINA’s defiant anti-realism could be called revolutionary.

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