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Laramie Movie Scope:
Anna Karenina (2012)

Something different but not magnificent

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2012) Something different this time, decided director Joe Wright for Tom Stoppard's screenplay (CliffsNotes for the novel), with so many other cinematic versions of Leo Tolstoy's long work of fiction (written for public consumption to earn a living, "early in the 1880s he repudiated the vanities of literary success, referring to Anna Karenina as 'an abomination that no longer exists for me,'" wrote Jane Kentish, scholar and translator of Tolstoy's writings: "He only regretted that there remained people for whom such works were necessary"), fit it into a two-hour stage play within the movie - sort of surrealistic with staged settings merging into realistic scenes or abruptly changing, as characters slip from one place, passing instantly through space and time, into another location or a shredded letter tossed into the air falling back as snow flakes - making a farce of the social mores of polite society and its "happy families" preceding the tragedy.

It begins in 1874 with a series of ironies. For the first time in her marriage (not for love at eighteen) to her saintly husband Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government minister who has devoted his adult life to imperial Russia (neglecting the emotional needs of his wife), Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) leaves her young son Serozha behind in St Petersburg to condole with Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), the wife of her affable, pleasure-seeking brother Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), who has had an affair with the governess, urging her to forgive Stiva and resume her role in the marriage.

On the train trip to the Oblonskys in Moscow, Anna makes acquaintance with Countess Vronskaya (Olivia Williams), who is on her way to see her son Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a military officer.

Coming to see Stiva for advice - passing through a humorous scene in an office of bureaucrats stamping documents in unison - Konstantin Dmitrich Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner with ideas for moral reform, reveals he's in love with Kitty, Dolly's 18-year-old sister Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander); Levin rebukes his friend's appetite for stolen baked goods while residing in a bakery of love. His proposal to Kitty refused ("I can't") - she's in love with Count Vronsky - Levin visits with his ailing half brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), dying of consumption and living with Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a former prostitute, who recommends that his brother instead marry one of the peasants on the estate: "Romantic love will be the last delusion of the old order."

During her introduction to Count Vronsky with his mother on the platform of the railway station, a man is crushed beneath the wheels of a locomotive. Encouraged to remain for a fancy ball, Anna is asked for a dance by Vronsky, who had been eyeing her the entire time he'd been dancing with Kitty, making the princess jealous.

Abruptly Anna's back on the train to St Petersburg (the image of the front of the locomotive in her mind and a sharp letter opener in her fingers); she again encounters Vronsky ("I have to be where you are") in the terminal and replies: "This is wrong." Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson), Vronsky's sexually liberated cousin Elizaveta Fyodorovna Tverskaya, comments doubtfully to Vronsky, who has turning down a promotion to Tashkent in order to remain in St Petersburg, on his expectations to persuade a virtuous woman to break her marriage vows, when Anna appears.

Together, the lovers consider the possibilities, of which Alexei says to Anna: "Only misery or the greatest happiness." Her husband Alexei warns her: "You may, by indiscretion, give the world occasion to talk about you." However, he is also concerned about his own reputation ("The man who can't govern his wife," remarks Prince Tverskoy, "has gone as far as he can go in government"), so he adds: "But it is my duty to remind you that we are bound together by God, and this bond can only be broken by a crime against Godů. And you have a son."

When Countess Lydia Ivanova (Emily Watson), who regards Alexei as a paragon of righteousness such as herself, reports rumors of Anna's ruin, Karenin denies them and defends his wife. Another abrupt transition takes Anna (damned) from her bedroom into bed with Vronsky (blessed): "So this is love."

In contrast, Levin ("I believe in reason"), for whom "Sensual desire indulged for its own sake is the misuse of something sacred," asks his friend Stiva: "Have you stopped stealing bread rolls?"

Upon word of her being pregnant, Vronsky asks Anna to leave Karenin; but her husband won't gift her a divorce or allow her to take Serozha with her. During a horse race (the riders gallop across the stage with the Russian spectators viewing the spectacle seated in the theater audience), Vronsky falls from his mount, causing Anna to cry out in distress. After Alexei shoots his beloved horse Frou-Frou, her back broken, Anna when corrected again for her conduct informs her husband that she is Vronsky's mistress.

Distressed by the prospect of a scandal, Karenin forbids her to see "that man" again and asks: "Tell me what I did to deserve this." In the eyes of high society, Anna becomes "a slut," for as Countess Nordston pronounces: "Anna isn't a criminal, but she broke the rules!"

Seeing reflections rather than the real thing, imaginings and suspicions directed at Alexei of infidelity, the impossibilities of her social class leave her but one possibility.

I would like to see a movie made of the novel in which Levin's story (representative of Tolstoy's own views about freedom, spiritual values, morality & immorality - "championing the peasants and proselytizing to the rich in the name of the common weal") becomes the primary focus while Anna's tragedy is relegated to the background.

According to Kentish, Tolstoy's wife Sonya, who unlike some of their children never shared a spiritual allegiance with her husband - "the records of his marital life express intense struggle and much unhappiness" - wrote in 1878 of him: "'Today he says he cannot live long in this terrible religious struggle in which he has been buried for the last two years, and now he hopes that he is close to the time when he may become an entirely religious man.' This most probably meant the completion of Anna Karenina, which Tolstoy found increasingly difficult to write because of his spiritual preoccupations, to which he gave some expression in the character of Levin."

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Copyright © 2012 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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