Anna Karenina

It is often difficult for us modern folk to read literature from another era.  There are the obvious differences in language and style that makes works like Anna Karenina or Shakespeare tough going, but there are also differences in attitudes.  When you read an old book that casually drops the “N” word or uses stereotyped portrayals of women or ethnic groups it is offensive and yet you can hardly expect a writer to rise above the prevailing assumptions and prejudices of his or her time.  But even if you take that into account, it detracts from the work, moving it from a living breathing artistic experience to an artifact of another age, something to be studied, not enjoyed or be moved by.

The best writers, however, do transcend their eras, at least in part.  Shylock suffers at the end of The Merchant of Venice, as Elizabethan conventions say he must, but he has an opportunity to state his case and to garner sympathy from the audience.  He is a flawed character but he is allowed to have human reasons for those flaws.

So it is with Anna Karenina.  From what I read, it was written at a time of great social upheaval in Russia.  Western ways were seeping in and there was bitter conflict between the old conservative and authoritarian way of doing things and new democratic ideas.  Tolstoy was definitely on the progressive side of things and he presents his tale of adultery and the destruction of a family, not as a moral lesson to keep women in their place but as a tragedy. Like all tragic heroes, Anna has her flaws.  She is selfish, impetuous and stubborn.  And yet she is also noble, smart and tasteful.

Keira Knightly plays the title character, Anna, a passionate woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to Karenin, played by Jude Law, a high ranking civil servant, who is very cold and passionless.  Anna meets Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a dashing army officer and they have a years long affair.  Karenin has no moral or emotional objection to the arrangement.  All he wants is for Anna to keep up appearances.  He doesn’t want scandal.  To be fair some of this is out of concern for her.  The law would not have allowed her to remarry after a divorce, and of course, she would have been shut off from society and separated from her children.  But Anna, once she discovers that her husband’s only objection to the affair is out of concern for their reputations, recognizes the passionless state of her marriage and escalates her relationship with Vronsky.

The Director, Joe Wright, who has done two previous literary adaptations with Keira Knightly, has chosen to introduce highly theatrical elements into the film.  It opens in a theatre and most of the transitions between the scenes take place there.  He also did innovative things with the soundtrack and the music, showing musicians just walking around on screen, for instance or having clerks stamping forms in the same rhythm as the music.  The thematic reasons for these elements are not readily apparent to me.  Is it a Brechtian thing meant to distance us from the emotional impact of the story, so we can concentrate on the intellectual aspects?  Or is it merely a way to speed up the transitions so he can shoehorn in as much of Tolstoy’s plot as humanly possible?  It’s a pretty film and some of the transitions do add an amount of energy to the film that would not have been conveyed by a slow cross fade.  The thing is though, that Anna Karenina is always celebrated as one of the groundbreaking works of literary realism.  It has no connection to theatre or anything in the least bit fanciful.  There is no resonance to introducing these elements.

Anna Karenina is a pretty film, well shot and creatively lit, but this puzzling artifice separates us from some very good performances.  Keira Knightly, goes from the consummate wife of a public figure to a tearful, suicidal harridan.  Her face which can sometimes be vacant is fully inhabited with emotion at all times.  The only problem is that the script does not adequately document her descent; we’re not along for most of the ride so we’re not really invested.

Jude Law stands out as Karenin.  He doesn’t come across as cruel, just cold.  You even have a little sympathy for him when he asks, “What have I done to deserve this?”  Matthew Macfayden plays Stiva, Anna’s philandering brother, with a winning bonhomie that makes you believe that people are always willing to forgive him.  I thought Aaron Taylor-Johnson lacked the necessary gravitas to play Vronsky.  You really wonder what she sees in him.

Anna Karenina is the story of a woman who realizes that her husband doesn’t really love her and moves on to another relationship.  Today, that would be the plot of a romantic comedy.  Before Tolstoy it would have been a morality tale of the inherent evilness of women.  In the hands of one of history’s greatest novelists, it became a tragic indictment of his society’s mores, not to mention a difficult if not impossible novel to adapt into a movie.

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