Last weekend I went to see Anna Karenina, the latest film from director Joe Wright and his "muse," Keira Knightley. I've never read the novel (though I started it this week, and am a whole 7% into this massive tome!), and my only experience with the story were long-ago and barely-remembered viewings of the "classic" versions starring Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. With that scant background knowledge, I went into the film expecting to enjoy it based solely on Wright's direction and stars Knightley and Jude Law -- but more than simply liking it, I absolutely fell in love with world of the film, thoroughly swept up in its tragedy and unexpected heart, and yes -- its hope.
In bringing Leo Tolstoy's massive, nearly 1,000 page tome to life, Joe Wright made the unusual -- and some would say, risky -- decision to film the entire story as a stage play. I wasn't sure how this would work and if visually the movie could pull it off. But from the opening scenes I simply abandoned myself to the conceit and lost myself completely within the film's glorious evocation of late nineteenth-century Russia.
I've always been fascinated by the history of Imperial Russia and subsequent revolution that brought an end to the glittering world of the tsars, so much so that I indulged in an entire semester on the subject in college, which remains one of my fondest educational memories. (And admittedly makes it all the weirder that I never tried to tackle a Tolstoy novel!) In this world, the aristocrats were arguably the celebrities of their day -- and as Anna is a highly-public member of that class, married to the well-respected statesman Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, she is a woman who for good or ill lives under the laser-like scrutiny social celebrity. Thus, filming her story as a play elevates the audience into the role of her observer along with every on-screen counterpart she meets. It isn't breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, but to my mind it comes close, enveloping the audience immediately within the world of the film.
The scene transitions are seamlessly done, giving the film the feel of a fluid, rushing river -- probably a most apt comparison, when one considers the dizzying speed of events that Anna finds herself caught up in, propelling her to her ultimate downfall. (Trains are used in a similar respect, suggesting the idea of an individual on a journey leading to a destination they are powerless -- or think they are -- to stop, an outcome they feel -- or choose to accept -- is inevitable, no matter how disastrous the result. Interestingly enough, the week before I watched this film I saw Harriet Craig starring Joan Crawford for the first time. In that film, Crawford's character makes a similar comment about disliking trains because the method of travel makes her feel "out of control," when in actuality in both cases Crawford an Anna conveniently forget they chose to take their respective journeys...)
The effect of the scene transitions is that the film maintains a sense of tension throughout, a rapid pacing that in my view lends itself brilliantly to the condensing of a 900-plus page novel. While Anna and her compatriots are set up and move on stage like so many glittering jewels, the transition scenes reveal a wholly different side to the story. Those "backstage" moments reveal the peasant side of Russian society, the filth, poverty, and struggle that make up the existence of the "have-nots" -- a marked dichotomy when considering Anna's privileged existence, and a harbinger of the revolution to come.
While Knightley skyrocketed to fame and widespread recognition with the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and Love Actually in 2003, I vastly prefer her turns in literature-inspired costume dramas. Anna Karenina is actually her second turn tackling an iconic fictional character from Russian literature -- her first being Lara in the 2002 Masterpiece adaptation of Doctor Zhivago (which I adore simply on its film-making merits, it is another book I've yet to read). And then there are her turns in Wright's Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, both of which set the groundwork for this their perhaps most visually stunning, ambitious collaboration to date. As Anna, I thought Knightley was pitch-perfect, making the transition from dutiful if quietly restless wife to mistress and social outcast heart-rending and believable. While Anna certainly goes to her doom with her eyes wide open, that does nothing to lessen the tragedy of her choices -- her willful rejection of the security of home, marriage, and son in order to temporarily satiate the lusts of the flesh.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Count Vronsky, the dashing cavalry officer whose chance encounter with Anna when when goes to meet his mother at the train (played by the inimitable Olivia Williams) launches a dangerously obsessive love affair that threatens to destroy not only their reputations but the lives of everyone it touches. Now I realize this is just a personal preference thing, but I don't see the attraction of Johnson over the likes of Law (receding hairline included!) at all. That said, he does manage to bring a youthful energy (and dare I say petulance?) to the role of Vronsky, a selfishness in his pursuit of Anna that fits the role well.
Jude Law was perfectly cast as Anna's older, politically-minded husband Alexei Karenin. I'm used to seeing him in roles that play off his personable, empathetic demeanor (i.e., Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, the father in Hugo, etc.). Between the make-up and his almost brittle, excessively proper mien, his Alexei was a bit of a shock. He is the very antithesis of Anna's warmth and vibrant personality. The brilliance of Law's performance is in the subtle layers he gives Karenin -- it isn't that he is wholly callous or clueless regarding Anna; rather, he doesn't know how to be emotional, how to exhibit the depth of his feelings until his family stands on the brink of implosion.
I am in no way attempting to excuse Anna's affair -- her relationship with Vronsky is lust, pure and simple -- there is nothing of lasting, meaningful love in their "relationship." But Karenin didn't help -- didn't attempt to meet Anna halfway until she'd sadly crossed the point of no return. A large part of that is certainly the social accepted roles of the sexes in the 19th century, but that aside I'm convinced that no matter the century, one thing about a successful marriage hasn't changed -- it's a two-way street that requires effort on both sides.
Interestingly enough Anna Karenina gives us three romantic relationships to compare -- Anna and Alexei/Vronsky, her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), and Konstantin Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty, Dolly's younger sister (Alicia Vikander - she can also be seen this fall in the Danish film A Royal Affair). Before we can take the measure of Anna's marriage, the film introduces us to the turmoil upsetting Oblonsky and Dolly's relationship. Oblonsky is an inveterate skirt-chaser, recently outed for an affair with his children's governess to the chagrin and embarrassment of his wife. Dolly, in giving her husband a home and children has lost the "bloom" of her youth -- or so that is Oblonsky's excuse. Anna has been summoned to "heal the breach" and convince Dolly to forgive her husband for the sake of their family. Anna succeeds -- and later in the film, while it is implied at the least that Oblonsky hasn't reformed, Dolly seems to have maintained a measure of peace in staying with her husband and loving him in spite of himself.
Macfadyen's Oblonsky was a comic revelation. With his ridiculous moustache, pseudo-pompadour-styled hair, and unflaggingly cheerful good humor (never mind that he is responsible for the problems in his personal life!), Oblonsky is QUITE the departure from Macfadyen's reputation has a romantic lead (Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, etc.). One couldn't imagine a more unlikely on-screen reunion for Knightley and Macfadyen, the couple responsible for putting their own unforgettable spin on Austen's famously sparring lovers. His long-suffering and put-upon wife is played by Kelly Macdonald, most recently the voice of Merida in Disney/Pixar's Brave. I just love her -- she always seems to have such a compassionate and kind on-screen demeanor, which is a perfect fit for Dolly, particularly in the tea room scene late in the film where she shows Anna the kindness of speaking to her in public.
Contrast the uneasy truce formed by Oblonsky and Dolly with Karenin and Anna as her affair becomes grist for the gossip mill. Once Anna chooses a passionate affair with Vronsky over her marriage and family commitments, she begins a long downward spiral into mental and emotional disintegration that is simply gut-wrenching to watch. The heady, early days of her not-so-secret "romance" with the officer comes into the harsh light of day when, unable to contain her emotions at the races (fabulously staged by the way) blurts out her feelings for the wrong Alexei in the most public way imaginable. Initially Karenin demands she honor her vows and maintain the status quo, finally driven to seek divorce. But when Anna gives birth to Vronsky's daughter and contracts a fever, begging for his forgiveness on her deathbed -- he finds himself moved to grant it. And that forgiveness looses something within him, freeing him from a desire for revenge or autocratic control, freeing him to take the first tentative steps towards expressing some feeling, some depth of the emotion that he possesses for his wife and family.
But while Karenin (Law is brilliant here) takes the first steps towards reclaiming his life from the poison of bitterness, Anna lives -- and she outright rejects facing life without her "grand passion." So Alexei lets her go, and cut adrift from the security of her marriage and family, commitments her husband would have gladly honored, she flounders, becoming increasingly possessive of Vronsky's time and attention. For in rejecting her vows, in embracing her feelings of the moment, she is left without any security. And this is where the staging of this film is so brilliant. When she decides to attend the opera with her friend Princess Myagkaya (hello Lady Mary -- I mean Michelle Dockery), she becomes the focus of society's scorn. The fluidity of the sets, the ability to change focus on a dime, is a stark and tragic reminder of the fact that Anna is an acceptable target for foolishly letting her sins become public knowledge -- when really but for the grace of God any audience member (within and without the confines of the film) could just as easily be the next target for their own missteps. That opera scene is to me perhaps the greatest tragedy of this story -- having rejected her husband's offer of a second chance, the increasingly unstable Anna still finds no grace or mercy with the public. Whether or not she would've accepted such, if offered, is of course open for debate -- but that lack of compassion was a convicting moment that broke my heart.
Thankfully Tolstoy doesn't leave his audience without the hope of redemption when it comes to relationships. The relationship between Levin and Kitty is a glorious realization of the possibilities of love, real, sacrificial, life-changing love and commitment. Levin is the complete antithesis of his old friend Oblonsky -- a shy, somewhat awkward young man, he prefers a simple life in the country, working the land, to the delights of city life. Passionately in love with Dolly's younger sister Kitty, he's returned to the city to press his suit, only to discover that in his absence a rival has arisen -- the dashing Vronsky. The youthful, romantic Kitty, sure of Vronsky's affections, turns down Levin's awkward proposal -- sending a heartbroken Levin back to nurse his wounds at his country home. Kitty's youthful, idealistic passion for Levin is subsequently crushed when Vronsky's obsession for Anna leaves her in the dust, humiliated and embarrassed.
Though I'm not yet 10% into the novel, the first few chapters offer some fascinating additional insight into Levin's personality and background, characteristics only hinted at thanks to the constrictions of the film's script and running time. But despite the compression of his story, Gleeson has done a fantastic job of bringing Levin's idealism and love for Kitty -- a love that is almost religious in its fervor -- to life on-screen. (Side note: did anyone recognize Gleeson as Bill Weasley?) Levin has set Kitty upon a pedestal as his perfect specimen of womanhood, his only hope of happiness -- a happiness he isn't quite sure he has the power to claim. Her initial refusal of his proposal is a humbling moment for them both, and it is only after this second separation when each has had time to heal and re-evaluate their feelings and desires that they can realize and claim the future they want -- with each other. His second proposal is so romantic. (Levin's impassioned dinner speech at Oblonsky's is simply beautiful -- and heart-breaking when one sees its effect on Karenin, caught in the throes of a broken marriage.)
While I absolutely ADORE Levin's purity of heart, his love for Kitty, and his ideals, he isn't the perfect answer to Vronsky or Oblonsky's predilection for mistaking lust for love. Speaking strictly from an interpretation of the on-screen action, Levin's obsession with purity, his idealism of Kitty, if left unchecked, would be doomed to fail -- because no human could possibly attain that level of perceived perfection. The turning point comes he and Kitty return to his country home following their marriage to discover his impoverished, dying brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), a known radical, and his common-law wife/former prostitute Masha (Tannistha Chatterjee) in residence. While Levin clearly possesses a sense of familial duty for his brother, he's ready to kick him out solely because he doesn't want Nikolai and Masha's presence to pollute his home, to risk offending his "angelic" bride. But to Levin's surprise its Kitty who shows him the truth of sacrificial love, joining with Masha to wash and tend Nikolai's broken body.
Just reliving that moment to type this makes me want to weep. The grace and mercy and beauty in that scene is overwhelming. My only previous experiences with this story on film focus on the tragedy of Anna and Vronsky's "romance." This film quite frankly shocked me with its moral, subtly Christian worldview, and the way in which it examines -- primarily through contrasting Anna/Vronsky and Levin/Kitty -- love, and encourages sacrificial love, love that doesn't wallow in the filth the world offers, or in the temporary satisfaction that comes from indulging transitory flights of fancy, but a love that extends a hand to the suffering, the fallen, and offers instead of condemnation, grace and mercy. You can have Levin's ideals, but to my mind the story espouses a faith and a worldview that uses those principles to walk out the perfect love we aspire to in a world full of fallen, messed up souls.
That's the hope this story offers, the hope that that love exists and can change one's world. It's an idea that is beautifully illustrated in the final scene of the film, when we see Anna and Karenin's son running through a field with Anna and Vronsky's daughter. Karenin is relaxing nearby reading -- an attitude of repose that would have been unthinkable when he was first introduced. The implication that he has not only taken in the child that resulted from Anna's infidelity, but that he's actually spending time away from work with those children stole my breath. This is a man humbled and battered by tragedy, but who through forgiveness, through releasing the wrongs done to him, has the hope of a fresh future -- and those children have the hope of a better, deeper, meaningful relationship with their papa.
There are just a few quick casting notes that I want to briefly discuss before closing. In addition to the principle players I've discussed at length, this film is packed with wonderful talent in supporting roles. Pip Torrens makes an all-too-brief but warm and humorous appearance as Prince Shcherbatsky, Kitty and Dolly's father. Torrens is a period drama veteran, appearing in films such as Marple, Shackleton, and Lorna Doone, and will be seen in the forthcoming remake of The Lady Vanishes. Holliday Grainger and Ruth Wilson join Michelle Dockery in playing aristocratic acquaintances of Anna's -- the latter playing Vronsky's cousin, Princess Betsy. Grainger appeared in the recent film version of Jane Eyre, and plays Estella in the forthcoming Great Expectations. Wilson was a huge surprise, as her blonde princess with a lisping accent couldn't be farther from the warm-hearted portrayal of Jane Eyre in the 2006 miniseries that launched her career. Emily Watson, most recently seen as Rose in War Horse plays Countess Lydia, the socially-conscious, kind antithesis of the other glittering, but poisonous flowers that populate Anna's social circle. And last but certainly not least, it was terrific seeing Thomas Howes, the sadly now-deceased William from Downton Abbey make a brief appearance as a military acquaintance of Vronsky's, looking so DIFFERENT. :)
Anna Karenina is a gorgeous, beautifully-made, thought-provoking film that I honestly have not been able to stop thinking about since I saw it. The tragedy of Anna's poor choices, the way she trades her precious marriage commitment for a cheap fling broke my heart, especially when contrasted with Levin and Kitty's growing commitment to each other and the sanctity with which that relationship is viewed. This is a gorgeous film, every frame popping with color and detail, the set direction, costumes, and props creating a glittering, snow-capped fantasy world full of all-too-real heartbreak. (Also, the score! Dario Marianelli has outdone himself once again!) But the heartbreak is balanced by the hope that a love exists that, when embraced, extends grace and mercy and offers the chance of renewal.
- Read Rachel's take on the film at A Fair Substitute for Heaven