Anna Karenina: A review

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be really eclectic; movie reviews and cultural commentary, political thoughts and book reviews, theology and history, with an occasional smattering of baseball.  That’s kind of who I am, a guy with many interests.  I’m a playwright–we dramatists have, by nature, pack rat minds. So after a few days on a single subject, it’s time for a review.

And Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina film is really something special.  Such an interesting director: Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Hanna give some idea of his versatility.  Now he turns Tolstoy’s novel into a highly theatrical exploration of the separate lives we live in public and in private.  Given a taut, literate, compact screenplay by Tom Stoppard, Wright turns the material inside-out and upside down, opening up the material and transforming it.

We start in a theater. An older proscenium space, with a huge forestage and capacious fly space.  And in a sense, the entire film takes place there, in that theatrical setting.  We see a stage door open, and an actor step into a Russian winter; we see actors step through a door, and find himself in a train station, we see a horse race, all rapt faces and thundering hooves, but no actual horses, and when finally horses appear, they’re racing past a proscenium opening. We see flats and backdrops.  Actors enter, and have to negotiate their way past footlights.

The dance where Anna meets Count Vronsky, where he woos and wins her, is a sinuous waltz, the dancers using their hands as well as their feet, precisely choreographed serpentine writhing hand movements simulating making love.  As Keira Knightley as Anna, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who made a brilliant John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) as Vronsky dance, the other dancers freeze, until Anna and Vronsky swing past and free them.

The mystery of Anna Karenina is what on earth Anna sees in Vronsky.  She’s married, and we have no reason not to see her marriage as a happy one.  Although Jude Law captures Karenin’s stolid dullness, he also shows us, unmistakably, his essential goodness.  He’s a considerate, pious and decent man, and he desperately loves her.  Why would she throw away her marriage and her family and her child, why would she toss all that aside for a vain little popinjay like Vronsky?  Taylor-Johnson is unquestionably good looking, a precise little man with gorgeous hair and perfect mustache, but he’s comparably insubstantial.  Karenin has what Vronsky does not: integrity, character, a position, and kindness to spare.  You know Vronsky’s going to cheat on Anna as soon as he’s bored with her, and when he does, the only thing that’s surprising is that he lies to her for so long about it.  Vronsky’s Mom (Emily Watson), offers the secret to his character: “so you’ve had an affair with a married woman.  That’s a valuable experience.  But it’s time to move on.”

But what Wright does show us, through the dance scene, is the beginning of a hopeless, desperate, self-destructive sexual infatuation.  The dance encompasses it–it’s exciting, intoxicating, dangerous.  When we finally see Anna and Vronsky in bed, their flexuous writhing echoes the dance; they make love like snakes.  And then we see them entangled in bedclothes, and we can barely tell where Anna ends and Vronsky begins.

They’re in love, says Anna repeatedly.  She’s in love with him.  But they hardly seem ever to talk, and when they do talk, she seems insane; insanely jealous, insanely besotted.  And this is where Knightley’s performance strikes me as so extraordinary.  She plays every moment full out, every emotion as an extreme, without seeming to care if those moments are stitched together into a complete characterization.  Having seen the film, my initial response was to wonder why Knightley wasn’t nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, instead of, say, Naomi Watts, whose character in The Impossible (though exceptionally well acted) spends most of the movie in a coma.  I think, though, that Knightley’s commitment to each moment of the performance may have struck some critics as ill-conceived, like she had no sense of the character, and so just overplayed individual emotional states.

But I thought her performance was perfect for this movie, for this approach to the material.  Wright’s over-all strategy isn’t realistic, not ever for a moment.  It’s entirely stylized, almost Brechtian.  Knightley isn’t so much a character as an enigma, a huge question-mark at the heart of the film. The rapid-fire mood changes fit the shifting scenery and ever-present mirrors–it’s not human life we’re seeing, but a fragmented approximation.

And by playing her that way, Wright is able to emphasize what seems really to interest him; the sexual double-standard.  Anna is a ‘fallen woman.’  She is disgraced.  And she is therefore ostracized.  So we see her at the opera, and no one will speak to her, except Shirley “Moaning Myrtle” Henderson, in a tiny role as ‘Rude Opera Woman,’ who disses her so completely that Anna dissolves in tears and leaves.  Vronsky sees all this, and seems bothered by it.  But it takes two to tango, and one can’t help but notice that Anna’s partner in adultery gets off scott-free, because he’s a guy.

Meanwhile, we see another side of love, another version of conventional propriety.  Domhnall Gleeson plays Levin, another aristocrat, hopelessly in love with the lovely Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  She’s young, though, and her head has been turned by Vronsky; she rejects Levin’s proposal.  Levin, meanwhile, tries to care for his revolutionary brother, who is living with a woman to whom he is not married.  Eventually, Kitty matures, accepts Levin’s proposal (in a lovely scene involving wooden letter blocks.)  And Levin feels like he needs to shield her from any ‘scandal’ involving her acknowledging the ‘fallen woman’ in his household.  Kitty impatiently rejects any such nonsense, and patiently and kindly helps her nurse the invalid brother back to health.  Compassion is possible–convention can be successfully navigated.

Of course, Anna dies; we knew going in that she would, that she would fall between the wheels of a train.  The final image of the film is the field where her children play, patiently and lovingly looked after by Karenin.  And then the camera pulls back, and we see the field, the flowers and grasses, and they’re part of a stage set, on the stage floor.  And we end where we began, in a theater.

It’s a strangely beautiful film, a superb adaptation of a great novel by an immensely inventive director and writer.  It’s a film that’s in part about the tragic mystery of intense sexual infatuation.  It’s a film about more lasting varieties of love.  And it’s a film about a society that refuses to allow women equality, not in love, and not in sin.  It’s spectacular.  See it.

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