The movie itself is quite enjoyable. The opening is a little jarring, as the movie mixes “stage” settings with “movie” settings. The characters will march across the stage or climb steps and find themselves on the catwalk above the stage amongst the ropes and pulleys, or be guided into a plainly “non-stage” setting. It takes some time to get used to this presentation, which seems to echo a Russian ballet. This could work if Anna were a ballerina, or if there is some substantial link between the story and characters and with the peculiar staging. The movie would have been improved had this cute but distracting device been abandoned.
The costumes are a pleasure to behold, but good luck to the retailers trying to cash in on the Anna Karenina look. The costumes are completely of their time, and very difficult to update without losing their essence and beauty (and their utter impracticality).
There is the requisite ballroom scene that involved a dance with complicated steps and absurd hand movements that looked like this.
The acting was wonderful. The actor who played Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has an uncanny resemblance to Gene Wilder, with blond hair and watery blue eyes. It is a little shocking to see on IMDB that he was born in 1990. The standout performance is by Alicia Viklander, who played Kitty. She perfectly captures the trembling moment when a girl reluctantly accepts an imperfect reality and becomes a woman. When Hollywood starts passing out awards, I sincerely hope she is on the list.
Anna Karenina isn’t the first modern novel, but Anna Karenina is perhaps the first modern character, with Isabelle Archer close behind, and Hedda Gabler bringing up the rear.
The story of Anna Karenina isn’t only about the title character, but of many others, most significantly Levin. Levin is a landowner caught between the old world and the new; he searches for faith and ultimately finds it.
In Tolstoy’s novel, Levin muses to himself (with apologies regarding the length; this is Tolstoy, after all):
“Yes, what I know, I know not by reason, but it has been given to me, revealed to me, and I know it with my heart, by faith in the chief thing taught by the church.
“The church! the church!” Levin repeated to himself. He turned over on the other side, and leaning on his elbow, fell to gazing into the distance at a herd of cattle crossing over to the river.
“But can I believe in all the church teaches?” he thought, trying himself, and thinking of everything that could destroy his present peace of mind. Intentionally he recalled all those doctrines of the church which had always seemed most strange and had always been a stumbling block to him.
“The Creation? But how did I explain existence? By existence? By nothing? The devil and sin. But how do I explain evil?…The atonement?…
“But I know nothing, nothing, and I can know nothing but what has been told to me and all men.”
And it seemed to him that there was not a single article of faith of the church which could destroy the chief thing—faith in God, in goodness, as the one goal of man’s destiny.
Under every article of faith of the church could be put the faith in the service of truth instead of one’s desires. And each doctrine did not simply leave that faith unshaken, each doctrine seemed essential to complete that great miracle, continually manifest upon earth, that made it possible for each man and millions of different sorts of men, wise men and imbeciles, old men and children—all men, peasants, Lvov, Kitty, beggars and kings to understand perfectly the same one thing, and to build up thereby that life of the soul which alone is worth living, and which alone is precious to us.
Lying on his back, he gazed up now into the high, cloudless sky. “Do I not know that that is infinite space, and that it is not a round arch? But, however I screw up my eyes and strain my sight, I cannot see it not round and not bounded, and in spite of my knowing about infinite space, I am incontestably right when I see a solid blue dome, and more right than when I strain my eyes to see beyond it.”
Levin ceased thinking, and only, as it were, listened to mysterious voices that seemed talking joyfully and earnestly within him.
“Can this be faith?” he thought, afraid to believe in his happiness. “My God, I thank Thee!” he said, gulping down his sobs, and with both hands brushing away the tears that filled his eyes.
This passage has been compressed by Tom Stoppard into a conversation that Levin has with the peasant Theodore:
Well, you don’t press people hard, but you live rightly, for your soul, not your belly.
My soul! What’s that? I know what my belly is. How do we know what’s rightly? I believe in reason.
Reason? And was it reason that made you chose a wife?
You’re a great one for reasoning, Konstantin Dmitrich, but what’s rightly is outside your mathematic—that’s what’s rightly about it!
With the scales dropped from his eyes, Levin puts down his tool and runs home to his wife and baby. While I don’t object to screenwriting shortcuts, I do object to the change of the lesson. The movie suggests that the meaning of life is rooted in hearth and home, rather than an enduring faith.
In the movie, Anna has picked some modern feminist thought. After telling Vronsky that she is pregnant with their child, he encourages her to run away. She moans, “I would never see my son again. The laws are made by husbands and fathers.”
In the novel, after discovering her pregnancy, Anna writes her husband:
“After what has happened, I cannot remain any longer in your house. I am going away, and taking my son with me. I don’t know the law, and so I don’t know with which of the parents the son should remain; but I take him with me because I cannot live without him. Be generous, leave him to me.”
She is evidently unconcerned with the details of the laws made by husbands and fathers and tries to see a clear path through the mess she’s in.
As for Anna, how far we have come! Today’s Anna would have easily dispensed with her husband, moved out, and maintained custody of her son. If alimony proved to be insufficient, she would have the option of enrolling in some state-sponsored welfare plan that would ensure food, housing, healthcare, and education. Surely after the baby is born she will find time to take some courses at the local community college. Count Vronsky may or may not move in, and if it “didn’t work out” between them, she would have moved on, and not slipped under the wheels of a train.
Even with a vast array of options provided by a benevolent state, her soul would still be in immortal peril. Tolstoy knew this, and therein is the tale.