Anna Karenina is based on the famous novel by Leo Tolstoy set in Tsarist Russia, which has been adapted many times for the large and small screen. This 2012 film is based on a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright. Wright has adopted an experimental approach in the film, using a purpose built theatre set which is dressed to represent various locations with only limited use of real outdoor locations. It is as though the characters live in their own aristocratic world divorced from reality. The main story revolves around Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) who is married to Alexei Karenin (played by Jude Law). Her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) causes something of a family scandal with his womanising, but this is nothing compared to the potential for scandal when Anna falls for a certain Count Vronsky (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
The composer Dario Marianelli has worked with director Joe Wright before, in the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice (which also starred a certain Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen). Wright's latest film has this strange semi-theatrical setting, with the aristocracy living in a strict social world full of hypocrisy, pervaded everywhere with conformist pressures and jealous fears of infidelity. Marianelli therefore strikes a tone which aludes to the social order of the protagonists using Russian folk song and dance music with more than a drop of satire. The composer makes significant use of a folk song called "Beroza" or The Birch Tree. The Birch Tree seems to have a special significance in Russia, and references to it have frequently found their way into the country's literature, including Tolsoy's Anna Karenina itself and in the novel and film versions of Doctor Zhivago. For the vocal tracks Marianelli chose a version of the song which appropriately describes a woman deceiving her husband.
Marianelli has composed some additional melodies which recur throughout the film, and all seem to have a lyrical folk character which lend themselves to different arrangements matching the various scenes and moods in the film. His scoring is transparent with a string ensemble and a range of instruments whose solos weave in and out of the texture. In addition to the film very cleverly blending external reality with the stage setting, there are also onscreen musicians playing the background soundtrack! The first track "Overture" establishes the birch tree melody with trumpet, solo violin, clarinet and accordian, but then goes off on a short excursion to the same pizzicato and staccato string accompaniment, before returning to the birch tree melody and finally dissolving into a more whimsical and seemingly improvised embellishment. A train carriage sound seems to herald "Clerks" with burst of a snare drum continuing the percussive sound. This subtle use of "found sounds" might remind the listeners of the typewriter sound which was a feature of Marianelli's score for Atonement. The third track "She Is Of The Heavens" has a fast dancelike 3 beats in a bar which morphs into some Kletzmer style music, before reintroducing the birch tree melody firstly whistled and then sung. The Kletzmer style may well be historically accurate for the setting, and its music recurs at other points in the score.
Track 4 continues in this whimsical or satirical vein, and its title "Anna Marches Into A Waltz" directly suggests the rhythmic transition which occurs towards the end of the track. "Beyond the Stage" is more serious in tone, with piano and harp supported by a darker toned string accompaniment, before "Kitty's Debut" returns to a lighter mood with a Viennese Waltz which occasionally suggests Tchaikovsky's ballet music. The Waltz continues in "Dance With Me", initially with snare drum beats but becoming more complex as it enters a series of mood transitions, turning darker as multiple contrasting melodies emerge and compete for dominance, culminating in a dramatic coda. The mood softens for "The Girl And The Birch" which is a simple statement of the Birch Tree song with a gentle tinkling accompaniment.
"Unavoidable" continues the waltz theme with the help of a piano and low strings, before "Can-Can" runs helter-skelter with some wild kletzmer style music with howling wind (on wood and brass) and an underlying snare pattern again suggesting a train journey. The middle part of the score then takes on a much more serious tone as the main story unfolds. "I Don't Want You to Go" is in part based on the earlier waltz theme, but the pedal point in the bass keeps the music suspenseful and dark, as though a constant worry is playing on someone's mind. "Time For Bed" is a brief moment of relative calm with a celeste playing in music-box style, before sadness and torment return in "Too Late". The mood deepens further with "Someone Is Watching" with its mournful solo violin.
"Lost In A Maze" settles into a slow melancholy waltz with lush strings replaced by a thoughtful piano. The darker mood continues in "Leaving Home, Coming Home" with some lighter moments when a clarinet returns with some hopeful thematic fragments of The Birch Tree melody. "Masha's Song" has a hesitant female voice full of emotion, while "A Birthday Present" is initially big and dark with menacing brass and snares, before turning quieter and ending on a reflective piano. "At The Opera" is operatic in style with male and female solo voices. Marianelli explains that the lyrics for this track are taken from Tolstoy's original Anna Karenina in Russian. "I Know How To Make You Sleep" starts with some string effects resolving into a heartfelt elegy for strings. The Waltz theme returns in "Anna's Last Train" on accordians and strings, though the string orchestra continuation seems to suggest a distant world of social events and carefree balls which can never be recaptured.
The dark mood continues on solo cello in "I Understood Something" with tortured piano seemingly striving to find some form of solace with the help of a lone accordian. The title of "Curtain" hints again at the theatrical setting as the story reaches its conclusion with a melancholy reprise of the waltz theme. The final track "Seriously" reverts to a satirical tone with a devilish tango, which brings back the Kletzmer feel to conclude the album on an upbeat mood. Anna Karenina is another wonderful score from Dario Marianelli which quickly defines its own musical soundscape and takes listeners on a journey, even as a stand-alone experience away from the film. The composer continues to show a striking versatility, and a knack for finding a unique and fitting tone for every film he scores. The soundtrack album is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and Marianelli's score has now been nominated for a Golden Globe.