The last few months of 2012 are filled to the brim with long-awaited, highly anticipated book adaptations. “Life of Pi” is out now, and I’ll be looking at that next week. Some big ones are coming in December, with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” coming out Dec. 14 and “Les Miserables” set for a Christmas release. Starting things off, though, is “Anna Karenina,” an adaptation of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of a married woman who ends up giving up her position in society for love.
The movie got early talks of Best Picture (though that has died down of late), and Keira Knightley in the title role is almost guaranteed to be nominated for Best Lead Actress. The film is taking a different angle on the story in staging the action like a play. Sadly, “Anna Karenina” has a limited release and can’t be seen everywhere, but there are theaters in the D.C. area showing it if you feel like checking it out.
This timeless story has come to the big screen many times before, most recently in 1997 with Sophie Marceau as Anna and Sean Bean, one of my favorite actors, as her love interest, Count Vronsky. Overall, the ’97 version was quite good, though the 2012 version could learn a lot from its shortfalls. Let’s take a look at how the ’97 version measured up to Tolstoy’s vision.
The ’97 movie captures most of the key events of a very complex book, and while some transitions can be choppy and rushed at times, it doesn’t take away from the overall story. One thing this version does well is pit Anna and Vronsky’s romance as imperfect. It’s a very flawed relationship in the novel, with the two of them rarely seeing eye-to-eye by the time the story tragically ends. This is captured fairly well by Marceau and Bean’s dynamic. If you’re familiar with Bean’s performance in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” you know how well he can play a character trying desperately to remain stoic and honorable, and this talent comes in handy in this performance.
The titular character’s romance is so intriguing and thought-provoking in the novel for two central reasons. First, it serves better as a statement on society than a romance for the ages, which Tolstoy delivers beautifully through dialogue and extended inner monologues with several characters to offer a multitude of viewpoints. Second, Anna and Vronsky are used as a foil to the relationship between Anna’s sister-in-law, Princess Kitty (Mia Kirshner in the ’97 film), and Levin (Alfred Molina), who battles an existential crisis throughout most of the story. Their romance is more of the beautiful story of true love than Anna and Vronsky’s, but by going between the two couples throughout the course of the story, the tragedy of Anna’s life as she attempts a divorce from her loveless marriage and falls from grace in Russian society has a contrast of hope, a more positive alternative for how things might turn out.
The ’97 version balances these two stories fairly well, something the current version would do well to duplicate. A third relationship, between Kitty’s sister and her philandering husband, was almost entirely left out of the ’97 version, however. Seeing how the last two turn out help show why Anna’s line of thinking throughout the course of the story is so worth noting. Tolstoy is able to balance all three perfectly, and it seems as though the 2012 movie will try to do the same.
Ultimately, however, the success of an adaptation rests on the actress playing Anna, and here is where the ’97 version falls short. Marceau shows glimpses of promise at times, but overall, she fails to stand out from the crowd, which was Anna’s signature characteristic in the book. Marceau’s choices in acting kept her subdued even when Anna was still the talk of Russian high society. Tolstoy portrays her as having an infectious personality that captivated everyone who talked with her. She had both the attractiveness and the charisma to pull Vronsky away from Kitty’s attention and into her own. Marceau simply does not have the energy to make this work. The rest of the characters for the most part act as they were drawn up by Tolstoy, but if the titular character cannot, the movie comes up short.
Fortunately, this is one place the 2012 version does not have to worry. Knightley has already shown she is more than capable of standing out and carrying a role like this (see her work in “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Duchess”). The big question is whether the artistic style will strike audiences the way director Joe Wright (who also directed Knightley in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”) envisioned it. If so, this could well be the closest film can come to matching Tolstoy’s brilliance.