Anna Karenina is a lush, beautiful, stylized film about succumbing to sexual flame and the complicated relationships of infidelity that tear a beautiful woman apart. The themes of love, lust, and forgiveness are depicted in the opulence of aristocratic society in late 19th century tsarist Russia. If you are expecting an experience like Dr. Zhivago, forget it. This is a heavily stylized rendition played as a stage within a stage, with overlapping realms of reality that may leave you bewildered (admitted by two moviegoers who went with me) until you work your way into the story. If you like art films, you’ll be fine. If you like linear plot lines, well, read a synopsis of the novel and maybe have shot of vodka before you go.
It took the genius of Tom Stoppard to condense 350,000 words of Tolstoy’s 1877 novel into 130 minutes of screenplay. Director Joe Wright took a boldly creative approach to this film, with a style reminiscent of Moulin Rouge (directed by Baz Luhrmann.) Life in Russian aristocracy had elements of theater, played out for the audience of high society, so Wright films the scenes on an actual stage, with aristocrats in the audience, whom we watch as they watch. The action alternates between this stage, where characters also move behind the curtains, into other realms of reality, such as a moving train, or they step from backstage into a snowscape that looks like a Magritte painting.
The princesses and counts wear gorgeous costumes for the balls and visits to the opera, all filmed in a luminous palette. The lavish Russian fashion and furs suit Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina well, lending some softness to her angular frame, while the hats and veils accentuate her strong jawline. But she’s much more than a clotheshorse in this period piece, having developed her acting chops since Pirates of the Caribbean, as anyone who saw her performance as a mental patient in A Dangerous Method can testify.
Anna’s husband, Karenin, played by Jude Law, is a moralistic man, stiff, proper, but meticulously fair. He warns his wayward wife of the consequences of choosing sin and urges her to pray. He is hard to like as a husband but the kind of incorruptible civil servant one might even wish for. This is a serious role beyond Law’s pretty-boy past, for which he even shaves his locks into a receding hairline.
The foil to his sternness is Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, whose ebullience borders on wacky as he dance steps through his office, twirling out of one jacket into another while his stage-rouged employees stamp papers in rhythmic unison. Oblonsky’s near-manic smile is a definite change of demeanor for Matthew Macfadyen from his aloof Darcy, opposite Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, and his tough competence as an MI5 officer in the spy series known to British audiences as Spooks, and as MI5 to stateside Netflix aficionados.
One of Anna Karenina’s most magical scenes is the elegant ball during which Count Vronsky first pursues Anna in a mesmerizing waltz, gliding with her between couples frozen in motion, then whirling her through time and space in a tempo that increases as the spark between them ignites into a consuming blaze.
What was the attraction? Why does a good woman who wants to be a dutiful wife and mother succumb to the charms of a white uniform and a wispy moustache? Admittedly Anna’s husband, 20 years her senior, is cold, albeit respected. When her libido explodes into a raging flame, it overwhelms Anna, burning relationships in all directions. The ensuing drama is the stuff of tragedy.
How will this film be understood by today’s young moviegoers? I am guessing that the morality of Leo Tolstoy borders on incomprehensible for many of them, since half of them grew up with divorced parents and nearly half of America’s births today take place outside marriage. It may be a stretch for young adults to fathom the gravity of societal disapproval for infidelity that provides the premise for this drama, let alone the moral issues from an eternal perspective.
The complexity of the relationships is incredibly difficult to portray adequately in such a short film. Some critics have slammed it for not delving deeply enough into character development. Admittedly, unpacking the conflicted motivation of Anna Karenina would have helped the story, justifying its end. Stylized filmmaking is an inventive way to lift the narrative into a non-literal, evocative art form, but it can’t replace storytelling. Some critics snipe that this is a “director’s film,” in which style outshines content.
All told, Anna Karenina offers a rich cinematic experience, praiseworthy in accomplishing the near-impossible compression of Tolstoy’s sprawling novel into a work of beauty. But does it do it justice? There’s a huge difference between Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice, in which he also directed Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, and the six-part BBC version our family has watched annually for more than a decade. Wright’s much shorter film does Jane Austen’s book justice, even for devoted Austen fans who miss the parts omitted. Those of us who love books are seldom satisfied with the film version, one notable exception being the 1981 British 11-part series on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. This may be one of the few times a novel has been filmed not just adequately, but possibly even more evocatively than the book, but the palette of 11 parts is obviously so much broader. However, the disappointment of the 2008 film version was not due to its length. Anna Karenina is highly commendable as exquisite artistry. But to ward off attacks from purists, I blushingly admit I haven’t read the entire book yet.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.