“Stunning,” as an adjective to describe a movie is so overused that it has little meaning. Nonetheless, Bonnie and I spent the first ten minutes of the new film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina stunned and whispering to each other things like, “this is amazing” and “I love this.” Sparing us from yet another BBC-like treatment or modernized, politically correct period piece, Universal Pictures gives us an artfully presented and faithfully interpreted version of Tolstoy’s great novel of love, passion and consequence.
The film uses a theatre back drop, moving from set to set, following characters through doorways and curtains from one set to another, from country to city, from train to carriage. The sets and costumes are lavish–late ninetieth century Russian aristocracy–and the space between sets is imaginative, suggestive and always artful. One is caught in a two-hour dream, watching as life in all of its complexity unfolds: temptation and resistance, fall and rapture, pain and forgiveness, confusion and insanity. There is no hero or villain. There are only people, good, confused and passionate, with God and faithfulness as their only hope, a hope that is so easily lost sight of, and then just lost.
The writer, Tom Stoppard, offers us a faithful rendering of the story, although obviously, much must be cut to fit a seven-hundred-page novel into a two-hour movie. And what is mostly cut is the story of Levin and Kitty, which in the novel is the understated and gentle love story that makes up more than half of the book, offering Tolstoy’s own (and perhaps semi-autobiographical) ideal of love and providing a foil for Anna’s passion. Levin and Kitty are not absent in the film, but those who have not read the novel might wonder why this innocent, gentle couple is there at all.
I am unspeakably thankful that the folks at Universal Pictures did not feel the need to modernize the story. Sure, there is a good ten minutes of Keira Knightly and Aaron Taylor-Johnson open-mouth kissing scattered through the middle of the film, which I guess they figured was necessary to get the voyeuristic element to pay twelve bucks to see the movie, but essentially Tolstoy’s moral message stays in tact: faithfulness is better than adultery, and repentance and forgiveness are better than continuance in passion-driven self-fulfillment disregarding the pain of others. Such continuance is, indeed, a kind of suicidal insanity.
Certainly there is plenty of blame to go around. Some might see the hypocritical society as being most at fault: a society that, according to one character, doesn’t care that she broke the law, but can’t accept that she broke the (social) rules in not hiding her passion. That, apparently, is what closets are for. But all societies have their moral taboos. For example, as open as Vancouver society is to sexual identities and lifestyle options, there is just no room in good company for a person who would cull fifty sled dogs from his stock. Every society has rules. And it is certainly one of Tolstoy’s points that ignoring the feelings of others, ignoring the rules, is suicidal–especially if one is also ignoring the feelings of religion, friends and family.
To live for oneself is suicide: painful, tormenting suicide. The alternative is no picnic either. Anna is married to a faithful, loving and very busy bureaucrat, twenty years her senior, whose faithful love is as boring to Anna as are his policies and awards for meritorious service to the state. And yet, not everything in Anna’s life is dull. She is wealthy, adores her son, and has all of the power and privilege of the highest levels of St. Petersburg society. But isn’t this a lot like life, most of life, for many people? (The lucky people, that is.) No life is solid gold. There is always tin mixed in. Life for no one is so good that there are not also mixed in painful or annoying or boring bits. And it seems that it is often the case, as it is in Anna’s, that the more gold one has in life, the more one is tormented by the bits of tin.
And it is this torment, if we let it, that will work us into a blind frenzy. Like Eve in the Garden, we no longer care what we may lose. All we can see is the promised sweetness of the apple, the excitement of the chase, the thrill of expectation, and the passionate ecstasy of longed-for experience. Nothing and no one else exists in this demonically inspired and self-induced frenzy. “How can it be wrong when it feels so good?” Even the object of our passionate love is no longer real to us: we see not a person with good and bad, strengths and weaknesses. We see only a vision, an idealized lover, a caricature with all blemishes hidden and all pleasing features grossly exaggerated.
Eventually pain brings us to our senses. In Anna’s case it is the pain and near-death experience of the birth of her love child. Anna comes to her senses and begs forgiveness, forgiveness from her husband whom she has deeply wounded. And he comes to her and forgives her and offers her everything. But this is not the end. Anna recovers and as her strength grows, so does her passion for her lover. Anna can repent and be forgiven and die, but she does not find in herself the strength to repent, be forgiven and live. The demon has taken root, the hand must be played out to the end.
Like most novels made into movies, it helps a great deal to have read the book before one sees the movie. However in this case, the artistic presentation is so engaging and the basic plot so evident that I can highly recommend this condensed version of Tolstoy’s novel even to those who have not or will not read the book. It is an amazing work of art and storytelling.