She’s a Player: Setting the Stage with Joe Wright’s ANNA KARENINA
3 February 2013
According to Jaques from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.139-140). It’s difficult to watch Joe Wright’s latest film, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and not consider this philosophy. Wright decided to set the film in a theatre, a risky move, but also a refreshing and original one. Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted for the screen so many times Wright needed something unique to distinguish his film from the rest. Completely abandoning realism—instead, using sets that appear and disappear right in front of viewers’ eyes—and, instead, opting for a stylistic, fantasy rendition of a timeless tale, Wright certainly accomplishes creating a unique cinematic version of Anna Karenina, completely unlike all previous adaptations. Moreover, this use of theatre serves as a metaphor that allows Wright to comment on major themes in Anna Karenina.
Adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard, Wright’s Anna Karenina captures the title character’s fatal fall from grace. The film opens with Anna (Keira Knightly), a married wife and mother of high social status, visiting her philandering brother and his wife in hopes of smoothing over the martial conflict stemming from his adulterous ways. While on that trip, Anna meets Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a handsome young man who is as smitten with her as she with him. Soon, Anna, who often turns a blind eye to society and disregards “the rules” of her 19th century Russian class system, begins an affair with Vronsky, and the two fall madly in love with one another. Complicating matters more, Anna gets pregnant, which creates in her a greater urgency to leave her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), and begin a life with Vronsky. However, her husband, who never turns a blind eye to society and expectation, initially refuses Anna’s request to divorce. After Anna gives birth and Karenin claims that child as his own, Anna leaves her husband for Vronsky. Yet, by this time, Anna has grown more and more insecure about her relationship with Vronsky, fearing their romance is fading and he is attracted to other women. In the film’s conclusion, Anna’s overwhelming paranoia and anxiety over Vronsky’s suspected infidelity pushes her over the edge, or, more directly, onto the track of an oncoming train.
Setting the film in a theatre evokes Anna Karenina’s strongest themes, particularly the unlivable demands of society on people living in a hierarchical class system. And, connected to that, the equally impossible expectations placed on women in such a system. Situated within the inner circles of the 19th century Russian upper-class, overbearing social standards are the catalyst for Anna Karenina’s conflicts and climaxes. Take, for example, the conflict at the ball Anna attends prior to beginning an affair with Vronsky. Set in the house of a theatre, characters enter and dance, but are careful who they look at and for how long, who they dance with and for how long, and who they talk to and for how long. Unspoken rules govern behavior because the consequence for breaking these tacit rules is banishment and shame from this elite status. Therefore, the entire ball is a contrived performance, a ritualistic test of each individual’s ability to conform to the system. The house of a theatre makes the perfect setting for such a test. The theatre setting, of course, suggests performance, but the house of a theatre also suggests an audience; people are not only performing, but also, as members of society, watching the performances around them.
Unfortunately for Anna, she is not a strong performer. Anna is either oblivious to how influential society is in her own life and the lives of those around her, or something in Anna’s nature is irrepressibly defiant. At the ball, she loses focus. Her performance is unrehearsed and she forgets her fellow performers are watching her. She dances a bit too long and she stares at Vronsky for a moment more than she should have. She breaks the unspoken rules, becoming the dancer who falls out of sync, which gets everyone’s attention. And, as her actions continue to disregard the convention, society begins the slow but inevitable task of destroying one of their own. Forebodingly dressed in black and standing in the house of a theatre, Anna lets her fellow cast and her audience down at the ball, and that is clearly communicated through Wright’s clever use of setting.
There are many times throughout the film Wright sets the action directly on the stage, and one of the most interesting uses of that stage is as Serozha’s bedroom. At times Anna visits Serozha (Oskar McNamara), her young son, in his bedroom, maternally tucking him in and telling him how much she loves him. Just as the theatre’s house made the best setting for a ball, the stage makes the best setting for these exchanges between Anna and her eldest child. In this set-up, Anna is both mother and performer, and all eyes are on her playing this role. In the beginning of the film, before meeting Vronsky, she performs the role of mother well enough, although there is the suggestion of what, in the future, will be viewed as her failure when she leaves her child behind as he begs her to stay with him; nevertheless, when she first takes the stage as mother she commands it. But, by the final time Anna takes the stage in her son’s room her performance fails. During this last visit Karenin enters the theatre’s house and watches Anna on the stage with their son. By this point Anna is an openly shamed woman, and, viewing her as an adulterous, Karenin criticizes her performance as mother to Serozha for its negligence. Anna failed to meet the demands of her role as mother, and also as wife; her performance failed and she is, literally, jeered from the stage.
Conversely, there are a handful of scenes Wright films outside the theatre, most memorably a loving scene between Ann and Vronsky. Both costumed entirely in white, and set outside on a sunny afternoon in the grass, this scene disregards the stylized fantasy of the theatre and plays on realism, which suggests what viewers see between these two in this scene is genuine and not a performance. This scene, set in nature, exudes honesty and trustworthiness; there is no pretense and no façade.
Interestingly, even though the theatre is not in this scene, its absence calls attention to it. Finally getting away from the theatre draws attention to how significant the theatre and performance are in Wright’s Anna Karenina. Moreover, after this brief scene, when Ann and Vronsky return to the theatre setting, it becomes even clearer to viewers that, while the lovers may have escaped for a moment, Anna and Vronsky are never going to get away from the theatre for good and will always have to perform their parts in society’s demanding, never-ending production of their lives.
Wright’s Anna Karenina received mixed reviews by critics and audiences. Truthfully, the shifting sets and stylized staging probably took viewers by surprise; Wright’s film is unlike anything most viewers have seen before. Also, adapted from an eight part Tolstoy epic, the film has a long runtime, which may try the patience of viewers, particularly those who already have misgivings about the unconventional approach. Yet, therein lays the beauty. The film is as avant-garde as the title character Wright presents to viewers. This is not just a film about Anna Karenina, this film is Anna Karenina.