Over the holiday weekend, I treated myself not only to the obligatory tasty turkey but also to a bunch of very good museum exhibitions that I'll talk about in the coming weeks. Today, however, I want to tell you about an exhibition -- of a sort -- consisting of hundreds if not thousands of striking images presented onscreen to an audience eager to get to know the latest version of Leo Tolstoy's spectacularly unhappy Anna Karenina.
This adaptation, by British director Joe Wright, takes very unusual liberties with the way the story is presented. All the action takes place, literally, on a stage, the stage of an Imperial Russian theater in St. Petersburg. The film's very first image is of the ornate, richly painted curtain of the Mariinsky Theater. Slowly, the curtain rises, and the camera zooms in onto the stage. And from this moment until the very end, we never leave the theater.
Beautiful, virtuous Anna (played by Keira Knightley) is married to the distinguished, highly respected government official Count Karenin. Tolstoy, in exquisite detail, begins to tell the story of Russian high society, bound by strict rules of propriety. And then, he throws the grenade; Anna meets and falls madly in love with the handsome Count Vronsky. The ensuing drama wreaks havoc on her marriage and social status; in the end, she throws herself under the wheels of an approaching train in what must be the most famous suicide in all of classic literature.
I've seen a number of film adaptations of this famous novel, but this one, with its highly stylized, artistic approach, hit a particular nerve. The camera follows characters not only onstage but also in the wings, the orchestra pit, and all the nooks and crannies of the theater. Even the famous horse-racing scene is presented indoors, with live horses running across the actual stage.
On the rare occasions when the characters leave the theater and venture into the splendor of the Russian winter, or enjoy a summer picnic on the grass, I happily recognized references to a number of famous French and Russian paintings, which clearly inspired much of the film's art direction. I bet you will have a knowing smile when you find the homages to Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. And for those of you in the know, there are references to famous Russian realist painter Ilya Repin as well.
Let me also tell you a little-known story about how Leo Tolstoy, in the middle of writing this novel, was forced to change his initial plans. In his diaries, he talks about how Anna, the powerful and enigmatic character he created, compelled him to move the narrative in a new direction. It was as if his character started dictating her own story. In the end, all our sympathy lies with Anna, and little with her honorable and betrayed husband.
To my surprise, this adaptation of Anna Karenina treats her husband not as an emotionally removed bureaucrat, but as the deeply feeling and, ultimately, heartbroken man that Tolstoy originally intended. And Jude Law, in the role of Count Karenin, is simply superb.
I'm curious to know what Oprah Winfrey might think of this movie. You ask why? When, a few years ago, she chose this novel for her monthly book club, more English-language copies of Anna Karenina were sold in the following days than in the entire century since its publication.
So, in my most mellifluous Russian accent, let me persuade you to treat yourself to this exceptionally artistic adaptation of a literary classic, with its echo of Imperial Russia at its best; its theater, its ballet, its music, and its wonderful art...
All images are from "Anna Karenina," 2012, courtesy of Focus Features
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.