“Venture too far for love, she tells herself, and you renounce citizenship in the country you’ve made for yourself. You end up just sailing from port to port.”
- The Hours
Anna Karenina becomes a citizen without a country, a betrayer of self, a woman who would risk everything in the pursuit of love. That she holds it for a time is remarkable, and that she loses everything to obtain it, is one of the most pervasive ideas that runs through our society, the question of whether it is better to preserve a measured happiness or forge ahead into the possibility of annihilation if there’s a chance at a greater joy. That struggle is made incarnate in Anna Karenina.
The film occupies itself with three different couples and their romantic pursuits, from blustering philanderer Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his long suffering wife Dolly (Kelly Mcdonald), to simple farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and beautiful socialite Kitty (Alicia Vikander), to the gorgeous married mother Anna (Keira Knightley), her government official husband Karenin (Jude Law) and her intoxicating military officer lover Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). It is the late 1800s and Anna is envied by all of St. Petersburg, a doting wife and mother who finds herself for the first time falling in love, the kind of love that will eventually consume and destroy her, causing her to leave her husband and children, sacrificing all in her pursuit of love.
Director Joe Wright surely has an eye for the details, and his adaptation is closer to the intent of the book than others that have come before. Anna is a woman possessed by the promise of love, imbued with the knowledge of good and evil, and, like many of us, is unable to stay away from the man who will cost her all she’s ever had. Though she senses the importance of duty and knows full well the implications of doing away with her entire way of life, she cannot help herself any more than she might stop breathing. Wright presents the various relationships with no real sort of hierarchy. All happinesses are equal happinesses, though some may fare better for having more sedate feelings and expectations. The aristocracy never lifts a finger, and their helplessness is evident in their choice of diversions, dancing and theatre, opera and sport, love and romance.
The set and construction of the film may be one of the liveliest and most original I’ve ever seen, and the cost of locations must have gone down tremendously once they decided to present the film as a kind of play, taking place in a theater, and one set is able to quickly transition to an entirely different one as a character simply walks through a door or a curtain opens onto the new set. Indoors and outdoors become irrelevant in this world that can be an entirely icy train station one moment and a stately ballroom the next. All the world’s a stage, after all.
The costumes are too beautiful to put word to, the sort of thing that transcends gender boundaries and cries out to be admired as real art only can be, with quiet hymn like devotion and praise caught in our throats. Keira Knightley’s body is the most wonderful vessel to bring us these tidings of gladness, cloaked as she is in grace made incarnate, swathed in fabricated lust. The costumes and lavish sets are so grand and magnificent that they steal attention away from the quality of the performances, allowing everyone in the film a bit of breathing room.
Keira Knightley takes to the role of Anna with abandon, playing her with a mixture of levity and selfishness, a moth drawn to the flame, assuredly bringing about her own destruction. Sickness breeds sickness and her suspicions grow and verge upon hysteria as she discovers that love may not have been all she imagined. The film is highly sexualized, a kind of antiquated panty dropper for a new generation of people who skimmed the Russian novels. (Haven’t we all “read” the Brothers Karamozov? I remember almost failing an examination in college because I couldn’t articulate what “the seed” was that grew in Alyosha’s mind.) Aaron Johnson as Vronsky is simply dripping with sexual confidence, the casual effortless glance of a man who knows the effect he has on women. His care for Anna is evident, but her clinging obsession begins to bore him, though at least in the film he seems to be pretty cowed by the things she’s abandoned to be with him. Jude Law is all rigid morals and tenacity as Karenin, Anna’s somewhat severe husband who loves her, but in a clinical sort of way.
Beautiful and thoughtful, Anna Karenina is worth seeing for the strength of the performances and the lavish design. People who love the book will likely be disappointed, but as an adaptation, it’s fresh and exciting, never too much, audacious. While most versions of the film tend to cast Anna as a heroine, director Joe Wright has taken care to present the multifaceted nature of Anna. The film lays waste to the idea of romantic love conquering all, and perhaps the only real moments of respite come between Levin and Kitty, (the remarkable Alicia Vikander who also appears in this month’s A Royal Affair) as two souls who attempt to make a good life together. Still, Wright is infatuated with the possibility, as are we all, that perhaps this new love is worth it, that by leaving our old life behind we can become the person we imagine ourselves to be, shining and bright, filled with possibilities and purpose. Yet, as Anna learns, all that glitters is not gold.