All the evidence of previous Hollywood adaptations and of director Joe Wright’s previous work pointed to his Anna Karenina being a lush and airless British costume-drama version of the Tolstoy novel. The fact that playwright Tom Stoppard was responsible for the screenplay promised at least an intelligent translation. But Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and Atonement weren’t lacking in smarts, they were simply stuffily reverential.
While Stoppard does provide an effective winnowing of the 1,000-page tome into a two-hour film, — even finding a bit of space for the usually neglected Levin/Kitty storyline —it’s the director who’s responsible for the cleverly irreverent decision to play the whole thing in an abandoned theater, emphasizing the artificiality of the period drama through the use of stage props, painted backdrops and choreography. The approach is surprisingly less stagy than the typical costume drama, as Wright uses the theatrical world as a doorway into a heightened reality, allowing the wings and the catwalks over the stage to become settings or using a model train for the story’s many journeys.
It suggests the influence of Busby Berkeley, an unlikely name to arise in relation to a Tolstoy adaptation but the filmmaker who most understands how film can expand the possibilities of theatrical artifice far beyond what the proscenium allows. Wright ultimately falters once emotion takes over from incident, as there is by that point an unbridgeable distance between audience and characters and he stops short of pushing further into the grandly operatic.