Anna Karenina is a very long and very intense (and I think sometimes boring) novel by Leo Tolstoy. I consider myself pretty hardcore in terms of literature, but I will admit that Anna Karenina daunted me; I started reading it a couple years ago over the summer and I stalled out with about 200 pages left to go. My bookmark has kept the same place ever since that summer. I just haven’t got up the stamina to go back to it yet, but Joe Wright’s 2012 film version might just have given it to me.
The main problem I had with Tolstoy’s novel is it tells two related, interwoven stories, one of Anna Karenina, and the other of Levin. Anna is a interesting woman who has an affair with Count Vronsky and gets into all sorts of trouble, and meanwhile Levin gets married to a nice girl and… farms. Tolstoy is a great writer and uses this contrast to prove his point, but nevertheless, having an affair and shocking society is way more entertaining than staying home and simply thinking about morality, agriculture, government, Russian society, and then farming. A nice thing for me anyway, is that though the film does show farming, it only takes a few minutes to watch as opposed to hours of hardcore reading. Once Levin got into these government elections, I just had to put the book down.
Thankfully for me, the film does focus on Anna’s story for the most part. The film begins with Anna (Keira Knightley) learning that her brother Stiva (Mathew Macfadyen) has been cheating on his wife with the governess (it’s always the governess!), and she goes down to Moscow to help him smooth things over. After giving a great speech to her sister in law, the marriage seems saved. But ironically, Anna is headed toward emulating her brother when she meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on the train there and they are immediately attracted to each other. In fact, they are so attracted to each other that they inadvertantly cause the train to run over some poor man! Not directly, but the connection between the two is sort of implied, and the event is just as very ominous foreshadowing for dangerous events to come.
Anna fights valiantly against Vronsky’s advances, but she can only last so long, and eventually she succumbs. She knows their affair is wrong, but she eventually just goes with it because now that she’s seen Vronsky she realizes how empty her relationship with her husband is. Affairs were actually not that uncommon, other characters besides Stiva are said to have affairs too, and even admit the fact themselves. The problem with Anna and Vronsky’s is that they are taking it entirely too far. Having an affair is one thing, having an obvious affair is something entirely different. They appear in public together, and it is obvious to everyone that they are in love. Karenin (Jude Law), Anna’s husband, tells her that she can go on seeing Vronsky if she must, but it’s damaging his reputation and also their son’s so if she’s going to continue they have to keep it a secret. That’s going to be more and more difficult, as Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child and pretty much can’t live without him. They have come to regard themselves as married, even though legally this is not the case.
Even if you haven’t had any experience with the story before, it’s fairly obvious that things are not going to turn out well. There is so much foreshadowing in the film itself that even if you can’t figure out exactly how the film ends, I’m confident that you’ll be able to tell that it’s not going to end well, so I don’t feel too bad telling you. I won’t tell you what happens, but just know that it’s not good.
Anna gives birth to Vronsky’s and her daughter, and she believes herself to be dying. This is a great scene. This is the first time that Vronsky, Anna, and Karenin have been together for any length of time. Anna is pretty delirious, and has trouble distinguishing between the two. They both do have the same first name (Alexey), but what’s really confusing is she uses “my husband” and you’re not quite sure who she’s referring to. It’s not really important to know this, but it really highlights the great irony. They are totally different people, and for basically the whole film they probably hate eachother’s guts, but Anna, just by being Anna, is able to put them on the same level. All is forgiven. The problem is, Anna doesn’t die. She has to go on living with Karenin and knowing that he forgave them, but she can’t. It’s all downhill from here; she’s goes off with Vronsky but with everything that’s happened they can never really reclaim their previous happiness. The tragic ending that must not be named goes about here, but honestly I’ll bet you’ll be able to see it coming.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice about the film, is that it takes place on stage. This can be confusing at times; I spent a good part of the beginning trying to figure out why he chose this. I clearly saw the parallels between acting an established part in society and acting in a play, but I wasn’t sure that it was a very compelling argument. I had to stop thinking about that after awhile because it became hard to tell if the whole film was unfolding on stage, or if it was just at specific moments or places. After awhile I stopped paying attention to this as well, but I think (and this makes the most sense to me) that both St. Petersburg and Moscow were on stage, but Levin’s place in the country was actually in the country and not on stage. We see the back of the stage roll up and he walks out into the wilderness, so it was hard not to miss, but other transitions were not as clear. We would sometimes cut to Anna and Vronsky or Anna and her son outside, but it was hard to tell if they were actually outside. If they really wanted to clearly delineate between when the characters had to be acting for society and when they didn’t, or which characters were always acting and which characters were natural, they should have made it more obvious. That said, I kind of loved the effect. Watching the characters walking around backstage as though they lived there was just cool for me, and having the servants literally moving the sets around was awesome. But after the fact, I have to ask myself if it was the most effective thing they could have done, and I’m forced to admit that I think it could have been better in terms of clarity.
Another visual trick I really liked was the dancing. Even when the characters were not technically at a dance, they move a lot of the time as if they were dancing. It was very beautiful and I appreciated it a lot. I think they were using the dancing as another reinforcement of the “society is a stage” idea. You know, like how society is very choreographed and if you make one false step, something terrible happens. Again, not sure how necessary or effective this move was, but it was less intrusive on the story and didn’t confuse me, so I loved it without any reservation.
I thought the acting was really solid. Knightley was really great as Anna. I don’t really remember sufficiently enough from the book if her interpretation was 100% accurate, but she got the point across. She was always interesting to watch, and as the title character driving the main part of the story, she did not disappoint. I also felt Law’s performance was really good, he managed to be really emotionless and reserved, but opened up well at crucial moments. Taylor-Johnson was kind of “meh,” but that was probably more of the fact that he didn’t get much characterization. Vronsky is hardly seen without Anna, and the only real moments he has are with respect to her, making her act or reacting to her. In the book he has a really great scene where he attempts suicide but doesn’t do it; I was disappointed that it was omitted from the film. Lastly, I really loved Stiva, Macfadyen’s character. He’s such a jerk, I hated him in the book for the way he treats women. In the film however, he got to be the comic relief character and Macfadyen delivered some truly humorous lines. I was wondering how he was going to work out in this film; he played Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and actually married Elizabeth played by Keira Knightley. In this film they’re brother and sister, so I thought that might be a bit strange, but I barely recognized Macfadyen. I love it when that happens.
So the bottom line with this film is that it, like so many other classic lit adaptations, really makes me want to read the book. This is sometimes the best that a film adaptation can do unfortunately. The original scope of Tolstoy’s novel was so large, that it would be very hard to capture everything that he way trying to get across in a two hour film. The novel is over 900 pages long, and it tells multiple stories and makes a lot of social commentary. On one hand, great job, Leo Tolstoy with your epic masterpiece, but one the other, do most people really want to take the time to read it? Not sure, but I had trouble with it. The film will give you the more exciting aspects of the story, while touching upon some of the more important points in the novel. And it looks really, really good.
“I would have done the same thing, except nobody asked me.”
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