Movies and books are different things and must be judged on their particular merits. Literary adaptations, especially of beloved and/or influential classic novels, have a particularly high standard to meet because viewers who know the print texts bring their own preconceptions and priorities into the film.
I read Anna Karenina when I was sixteen-years-old and was devastated by the tragedy of the story. Forsaking her stodgy husband for a handsome military officer, the young mother, Anna, enjoys intoxicating passion until it is revealed that Count Vronsky is a feckless lover. Realizing that she has lost everything – love, family, position, future – not so much because of what she has done but because openly she has broken the rules, beautiful Anna hurls herself beneath a train.
I cried and cried and cried.
Maybe the unfairness of it all started me on a path that would one day make me a feminist scholar and critic championing small films that defy traditional (linear and masculinist) narrative structures. Certainly, this tragic story marked me indelibly and prepared me for a richer understanding of other challenging books and movies to come.
Only modestly engaged by director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement (though I did enjoy his version of Pride and Prejudice, also starring Keira Knightley), I was measured in my expectations for Anna Karenina (screenplay by Tom Stoppard).
Sometimes there is a reward for lowered expectations. I liked Anna Karenina, which presents a bold vision for the novel that is much more an interpretation than a traditional adaptation of the type that are often so respectful of the source material that there is not enough attention by creators to the ways films and novels differ as mediums.
This film does not reveal that particular mistake and, instead, offers some effective storytelling elements that make good use of cinematic aesthetics.
For me, three devices clearly mark the issues of social class that undergird the two major love stories presented in the film.
First, this narrative is set in Russia amid the sharp class and wealth divisions that will ultimately give rise to the Russian Revolution, and the film opens with a railroad worker’s death that sets the class differences into relief and also foreshadows Anna’s fate. I found this quite effective, even haunting, because of the visual depiction of the character and his interaction with Anna at the train station.
Second, I was mesmerized by Anna’s jewelry. Her gowns and coiffures are breathtaking, but the jewelry goes beyond that. The luster of the pearls and sparkle of the diamonds are so dazzling that Anna’s luminous skin and eyes fade into background.
Don’t mistake me, even if I could have jewelry like this (which won’t ever happen), I would never be able to wear it, and that is precisely the point. Anna’s jewels speak to the sharp divisions that allowed elites to live an unbelievable lifestyle of entitlement they don’t stop to consider while peasants starve throughout Russia. (When I visited The Hermitage and Peterhof in May of 2006, I had a visceral sense of the inequities that sparked revolution.) I have never in my life imagined that jewelry could be so beautifully photographed, and I have never felt quite so conflicted about my response to it — admiring, then resisting, and finally rejecting.
Third, the decision to set scenes and sequences situated amid the social strata of the elites (with their many conventions and rules both spoken and unspoken where men make the choices and women live with them) on a stage with its artifice not merely revealed but highlighted is a very good choice. These city sequences juxtapose beautifully with those featuring Levin, the gentlemen farmer who lives a simple life (when away from the city) and respects the workers, and they also contrast with Anna and Vronsky during the happy period after they have consummated their love but before the horse race when everything begins to unravel.
When Levin is at his farm, there is no stage and no obvious set at all. The countryside and farmhouse are unpretentious and real, and Levin’s relationship with Kitty flowers there after they wed and set up housekeeping. Similarly, Anna and Vronsky are presented in natural surroundings during the period of time when their feelings are true and they are able to elude the social conventions of their cohort for a brief period. What is authentic and what is constructed? It’s easy to tell in this film.
I love the look of the film, both the overtly staged sequences and those photographed on realistic sets. Both are just dazzling and work thematically.
It is worth noting that the performances are as strong and effective as the aesthetics.
So, why do I like and not love this film? While all of the emotional tones of the novel are present in the film, there is the matter of degree. The bold visual and narrative style of the film are not matched by the level of emotion elicited.
Levin and Kitty deliver well enough, but theirs is a different scale of passion (and more appealing for its quiet authenticity and durability). The more equal weighting of their story in the movie even provides a happy ending for viewers who choose to focus on them.
It is the rendering of Anna and Vronsky that falls short. The breathlessness of lust turned to an equally consuming love works well enough. But, where is the searing regret that comes with the realization that the once intense feeling will not grow or even endure? Where is the utter despair that drives Anna to one of the most tragic resolutions in all of literature? The film is good, but I did not cry and cry and cry.
I did not cry at all…but, still, I liked it.