Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina comes to silver screen

        Featured Writer, ANNA SPIEWAK

For those who never read Leo Tolstoy’s 800-page epic novel, the best way to explain the plot of  ‘Anna Karenina‘  is to call it a Russian twist on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlett Letter,’ minus the protagonist Hester Prynne’s eventual triumph.  After all, this is a Russian novel, where dark reality and tragedy supersedes the American happy ending.

The beautiful anti-heroine, Anna Karenina, played by the director’s favorite British starlet Keira Knightley, is doomed from the very start. She’s in a loveless marriage with a kind man who is more consumed by his high-level job than by his attractive wife. They share a son. The plot unveils when Anna is sent for by her brother, Stiva, to Moscow to help save his marriage after he has an affair with the governess of his children.

“Sin has a price, you can be sure of that,” says Alexei Karenin, Anna’s husband (played by Jude law) at the beginning of the film as he bids her goodbye right before her trip, foreshadowing Anna’s inevitable fate.

On her journey to see her philandering brother, she meets the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky, their attraction is immediate, and so her doom begins.

Young director Joe Wright, best known for period  films such as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” turns the epic novel into a visual feast, by mesmerizing the viewers with lavish costumes, seductive music and unique dancing, internalizing the dialogue-heavy plot into the actions and facial expressions of the characters.

While the film has several interwoven themes, love and social class standing are at the core of the film. Tolstoy was known for his heavy focus on social class, and the humility of living the simple life of a serf. That’s why the character of Levin, Stiva’s friend, loosely based on the author himself, is the antithesis of Anna. While her love is forbidden and restless, Levin’s love is pure and righteous.

The setting is late 1800’s Imperial Russia, where society’s opinion of you was your lifeline, and losing it equaled death. To reflect that society’s eye on you, half of the film takes place on stage, to symbolize the fishbowl effect, that someone is always watching you.  The screenplay was also written by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”), best known for writing for the stage.

“Tom has been a hero of mine for some time and I was really only interested in making Anna Karenina if he were to write it, that was the point of it, to write it with him,” said Wright, during a round table press interview post the New York screening of “Anna Karenina.” This was also Wright’s third collaboration with actress Keira Knightley, whom he also cast in both “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Atonement “.

The stage-like sequence of the film only partially distracts the viewer, as it alternates from stage back to open space takes. Aside from upper-class lavishness of the period, the film is filled with realism and foreshadowing. When Anna gets off the train and runs into a rail worker all covered in sod. He later gets crushed by the train during an accident and his bloodshed insides lie spilled on the screen.

On the train, Anna meets Countess Vronsky, her future lover’s mother, who reminisces about her own past, and at the same time foreshadows Anna’s future.

“I’d rather end up feeling that I wish I hadn’t than to later feel that I wish I had,” says her character played by British actress Olivia Williams.

The Russian culture is intertwined into a fully British-Scottish cast. The film was also shot in some of Wright’s favorite spots in England. To bring some of the cultural authenticity into the production, all of the extras were made up of Russians, who would tell the director if he got something wrong about the film, Wright revealed during a press interview.

The viewer gets a hint of foreshadowing again when Anna runs out of the ballroom after her intimate dance with Vronsky, while all eyes are watching, and sees a train coming at her in the glass reflection, once again, preparing the viewers for Anna’s eventual fate.

Both the star of the film and the director saw qualities in Tolstoy’s characters that are very relatable to people today: love, passion, yearning, jealousy.

“We live in a society with rules, and if you break these rules, then the pact turns against you, and in that way you completely understand what’s going on with Anna and what happens to her,” said Keira Knightly during a press interview for the film. “That feeling of being ostracized, and that feeling of being trapped by rules that don’t necessarily fit, that idea that she gets destroyed almost by being the most honest person in the whole film, and it’s that lack of inability to live within a lie is the thing that leads to her destruction.”

The film, due in select theatres Nov. 16th, also stars Kelly Macdonald from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, Matthew Macfadyen, Emily Watson, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as “Vronsky.”

The creativity of the film, echoing a la Moulin Rouge ambiance, includes cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers), three-time Academy Award-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood (Sherlock Holmes), film editor Melanie Ann Oliver (Jane Eyre), hair and make-up designers Ivana Primorac (Hanna), Academy-Award winning composer Dario Marianelli (Atonement), and two-time Academy Award-nominated costume designer Jacqueline Durran.

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