Last year’s Anna Karenina is one of the most interesting and confounding genre pieces I’ve ever seen. In part because it inhabits its genre spaces both more literally than many of its peers and from a greater distance.
At its most obvious, it’s a historical costume drama. But because its setting is a world effectively built from the remains of an old theatre, it is also literally a costume drama not just for the external audience, but for the internal players. But it does not actually take place in a theatre. It’s not a stage show; there are no stage hands. Rather, the walkways meant to hold lights become train tracks. The pulleys and weights that operate the curtain form the brocade walls of a country home. A garden grows in the orchestra. And when Anna goes to the theatre the theatre returns to mimic its original purpose.
Of course, this theatre device, along with the film’s gorgeous heightened use of movement and less successful use of rather stylized acting (not all the cast is as equally up to the task), is meant to highlight what ultimately destroys Anna — the world of appearances and those who feel beholden for it.
But somehow it is also these choices that transform Anna Karenina into a fantasy. I felt as if I was watching faeries act out a cruel parody of the lost human world, and half my brain spent the entire film wondering how this had come to pass. A week later, I’m still haunted by these creatures for whom the bend of a wrist, a turn of the head, the color of a dress, is a language of a world that would never be translated for me. This otherness reminds us that as transferable as Anna story seems it occurs in a world we as viewers do not entirely know, whether that is Russia, the aristocracy, or, in this case, a faerie kingdom.
While the film is not entirely successful and somewhat unpleasant to endure for both the tragedy and cruelty that female sexuality engenders in its story, it’s incredibly compelling, and worth hunting down, especially if you can see it on the big screen before it goes away. Among other things, it makes a fascinating companion piece to Les Miserables, by introducing theatre where it was not previously present, as opposed to the withdrawal of theatre that the naturalization of the musical into film in provides.