One of the advantages of being an avid reader and a literature scholar is the chance of living a million lives. The incredible charm of books is all here, in the unique opportunity they give you. Moreover, reading works of fiction from other countries gives you something even more special: you learn about other worlds, cultures and traditions without moving. When literature gets to the silver screen, further magic happens: what you’ve imagined becomes real; characters are given a body, a voice, gestures, and you are there, trying to make the world you created in your mind fit with what the film is showing.
Adapting a literary work for the cinema is always challenging: the director measures himself with his/her own art and with the author who wrote the novel. Things get more complicated when someone has adapted the same novel before you. It must have been difficult for Joe Wright to find his own voice in bringing Anna Karenina to life. The masterpiece by Lev Nikolàevič Tolstòj, published in the late 19th century, has fascinated film-makers and actresses alike: just think of Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Sophie Marceau, three very different artists who tried to leave their own mark on such a complex character. Keira Knightley is the last one who has accepted the acting challenge, but others will surely come next.
Besides the protagonist, everything in the novel (and in the movie adaptations) is special and “exotic” – the location (19th-century Russia, in particular Moscow and St. Petersburg), the social setting (aristocracy and high society), the unwritten rules and conventions according to which the characters behave. The core of the novel is a star-crossed love story which takes Anna, wife of a senior statesman, into a downward spiral of passion, lust and desperation, but there’s much more in it, a complex pattern that the British director has brought on screen with a very original narrative technique. Most of the narration is done with a theatrical structure: scenes weren’t shot in different locations, but in one place only, a theatre-like setting where props and backdrops, beautifully designed by Sarah Greenwood, change in a whirlwind. The first impression you get is confusing: you don’t understand what’s happening because different characters are introduced one after the other, along with their own world (Anna in her boudoir, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin in his study, Prince Stepan “Stiva” Arkadyevich Oblonsky – Anna’s brother – in his office, for example), but this feeling quickly vanishes. As soon as the story develops, the audience realizes the reason behind such an unusual directorial choice.
The world where Anna and most of the other characters live is ruled by strict social conventions. Appearances are the most important thing when it comes to relationships: almost everybody has cheated on his wife/her husband (Karenin and Dolly, Anna’s sister-in-law, seem to be rare exceptions) but nobody dares to make it public. Anna is the first victim of her own passion and is exposed as the “sinner” because she loses sight of the aforementioned social rules. Characters live under the constant scrutiny of others; for this reason, Wright sets the story into a theatre-like setting, because everything happens in public, as on a stage. Moreover, going to the theatre was one of the most important social events at the time, a moment not only devoted to personal amusement but to social relations, too. Think of the magnificent opening scene of Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954), set at La Fenice theatre in Venice, in which the private and the public realms merge into one another.
The tragedy of Anna Karenina springs from contrasts, too. There are two couples who follow different paths: Anna and Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (the cavalry officer she falls in love with) are opposed to Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin (a land owner) and Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Dolly’s younger sister). This contrast is shown on screen through strikingly different settings. The “artificial” nature of the love story between Anna and Vronsky (and by “artificial” I mean that it develops in the public eye, despite trying to break social conventions) is emphasized by the theatre-like settings it takes place in; on the other hand, the love story between Levin and Kitty (and Levin’s personal story) takes place in outdoor Russian locations. The only Anna-Vronsky scene filmed outdoors is a brief bucolic moment when the two lovers have a picnic in a wood; the rest of their story is literally “trapped” in a series of rooms and halls, symbolizing the impending doom. The only way in which Anna can escape this maze  is committing suicide by throwing herself under a train. On the other hand, Levin, the revolutionary land owner who works with his own farmers, the disillusioned man who doesn’t believe in romantic love, the semi-autobiographical character (many critics say he mirrors the author himself), is the symbol of positive values. His attachment to the land and to traditions is shown by the conventional way in which his story was filmed.
Wright is not judgemental in presenting Anna’s story, even if her behaviour is obviously criticised by her peers. On the contrary, he points out Levin’s hypocritical attitude: he allows Nikolai Dmitrievich Levin, his dying brother, to live under his roof with his mistress, but doesn’t want Kitty to meet them. It’s Kitty – a highly stylized character – who takes all social barriers down by taking care of him. By the end of the film, the contrast between the couples is very clear, but the borders of what/who is good and what/who is bad are blurred. As a matter of fact, the film closes on a rare outdoor scene, where Seryozha (Anna and Karenin’s son) plays with Anya, his step-sister (Anna and Vronsky’s daughter), under the benevolent eyes of Karenin, the betrayed and cruel husband who has found peace in a new, drama-free phase of his life.
Please take some time to watch this amazing featurette in which Joe Wright, the screenwriter Tom Stoppard, Keira Knightley, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander and others speak about the peculiar dimension in which the movie was filmed. If you haven’t watched the film yet, please do: you won’t regret it.
 A real maze appears in Karenin and Anna’s country mansion.