It seems that the trope of the play within the play is here to stay—after percolating through intellectual discourse for decades, the post-modern frame has inevitably trickled down to the performing arts. You can’t tell a story anymore without fiddling with the narrative, inserting commentary or turning the whole thing into a dress rehearsal for the actual performance. Even popular forms—like Broadway superhero musicals—have fallen prey to the cleverness of the conceit. Contemporary opera productions cannot resist framing and re-framing the travails of their characters, winking at the audience as if to remind us, “all the world’s a stage!”
It’s a tiresome trend, or rather, it feels clever and striking the first few times you see it and then grows quickly stale, because, in the end you begin to suspect it doesn’t really add much to your understanding. It’s an intensely solipsistic approach, in which the means are more interesting than the underlying intentions. (Though in the right hands, like anything, it can offer a refreshing point of view. Sofia Coppola’s pop Marie Antoinette is a case in point.)
Now, Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina has been given the post-modern treatment by the British film-maker Joe Wright, the man who brought us Ian McEwan’s Atonement. His new film, which will come out in the US on Nov. 16, is elaborate and lavish in every way: huge cast, neverending (but quite good) music by Dario Marianelli, complex choreographed movement, infinitely detailed sets, ravishing clothes and jewelry (especially the jewelry) by Jacqueline Durran. The cast is peppered with stars, from Keira Knightley (mis-cast, in my opionion) as Anna to Jude Law as Karenin (excellent), Kelly McDonald as Dolly (lovely), and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) as Anna’s friend Princess Myagkaya. The idea behind the film seems to be that the character’s world is like a lavish but peeling theatre, in which they are players. Images of the proscenium are woven into almost every scene. Ballrooms and skating rinks appear enclosed; the characters wander in and out of a theatre’s wings, amid ropes and ladders; Anna’s son sleeps in what looks like a puppet theatre; interior and exterior walls morph into each other. We never quite know whether we floating in the illusion of reality or whether we are meant to marvel at the clever manipulation of this illusion.
Add to this the highly choreographed direction. Alicia Vikander, as Kitty, glides into her first ball like a ballerina-in-training—she is very lovely—with her arms held just so. Clerks stamp their paperwork in time with the music, then rise up an remove their jackets to become waiters at a fancy restaurant, whistling along in time. The extras—especially in the first half of the movie—move like a corps of dancers, and in fact, many of them are. Joe Wright brought in the well-known contemporary Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to shape much of the group movement and even some of the intimate scenes, not just the ballroom sequence. (At the opening ball, the waltzes are gussied up with busy arm movements that simultaneously call attention to themselves and reveal Knightley’s relative lack of grace.) Even the scene in which Levin, the idealistic landowner who acts as Tolstoy’s stand-in (played by the slightly shellshocked Domhnall Gleeson) finally wins over Kitty’s affections is played out in a kind of intricate hand ballet at a game table covered with lettered blocks.
It’s all ably accomplished, mind you, with great skill and art, but the artifice grows increasingly grating, and it’s no wonder that by the end, as the love story begins to unravel, Wright opts for a more naturalistic mode. But the main problem is that this kind of approach doesn’t really suit the material; Tolstoy’s novel is too limpid, too three-dimensional and multi-layered for this approach, and too earnest. Instead, the film’s artfulness constantly pushes one away and dazzles with its surface. Casting is also a problem. Knightley, though of course very attractive, is too thin, too jumpy, and lacks the calm, glowing loveliness and warmth that Tolstoy constantly refers to in his novel: Anna’s “dazzling beauty,” her “proud head,” her “brilliant eyes,” but also her spirituality and love of books. Knightley plays her as a bit of a hysteric, an excitable woman who immediately falls for Vronksy, staring at him like a hungry little girl in a Viennese pastry shop. Michelle Dockery (Downton’s Mary) with her proud, swan neck and placid face—behind which lurk god knows what thoughts!—is much closer to the mark. And Vronsky! He is played by the very handsome Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who, with his golden curls, looks in turn like a Prada model or like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. In short it’s hard to believe someone so pretty could have any feelings at all. Two other actors in the cast would have fit the bill much better: Jude Law and Raphael Personnaz, the latter of whom plays Vronsky’s brother. Law has the intensity (don’t forget Oblonsy describes Vronsky as “a cultured man, too, and very intelligent…a man who’ll make his mark”). Personnaz has the dark, sensitive good looks. As it is, Law’s Karenin, a conventional but fundamentally decent man tormented by love, duty, and loss, steals the show, as does the magnetic Matthew Mcfadyen as Anna’s jolly, bonvivant brother.
For all its limitations, the film is not a waste of time, though. The screenplay, by Tom Stoppard, is tight, the designs elegant, and at least it has a point of view, unlike so many over-padded, hyped-up costume dramas. If it disappoints, it does so with honor. It’s not one for the ages, but that’s all right. After all, we still have the book.