HE readers presumably understand the perfectly chosen first line of A.O. Scott‘s N.Y. Times review of Anna Karenina — “Bad literary adaptations are all alike, but every successful literary adaptation succeeds in its own way.” It’s a re-phrasing, of course, of the first line of Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 novel: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“The bad adaptations — or let’s just say the average ones, to spare the feelings of hard-working wig makers and dialect coaches — are undone by humility, by anxious obeisance to the cultural prestige of literature,” Scott writes. “The good ones succeed through hubris, through the arrogant assumption that a great novel is not a sacred artifact but rather a lump of interesting material to be shaped according to the filmmaker’s will.
“The British director Joe Wright has seemed to me — up to now — to belong to the dreary party of humility, but Anna Karenina is different. It is risky and ambitious enough to count as an act of artistic hubris, and confident enough to triumph on its own slightly — wonderfully — crazy terms.
“Mr. Wright’s brilliant gamble is to arrive at…emotional authenticity by way of self-conscious artifice. The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are rendered as elaborate stage sets. (Sarah Greenwood is the production designer.) Characters make their way around props, past painted backdrops and through catwalks, ropes and backstage rigging. You get the sense that in these bureaucratic offices, ministerial meetings and aristocratic households, everyday life is a form of theater. To play your part in this intricately hierarchical society you must speak your lines, hit your marks, know your place and beware of improvisation.
“But the film itself is the very opposite of stagy. The camera hurtles through the scenery as if in hungry pursuit; the lush colors of the upholstery and the costumes pulsate with feeling; the music (by Dario Marianelli) howls and sighs and the performances are fresh, energetic and alive. Compressing the important events of Tolstoy’s thousand pages into an impressively swift two hours and change, Mr. Wright turns a sweeping epic into a frantic and sublime opera.”