A Tragedy of Passion and Power: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, directed by Joe Wright

By Daniel Garrett

Anna Karenina
Directed by Joe Wright
Focus Features, 2012

Anna Karenina is a beautiful, inventive interpretation of Tolstoy’s story of love, adultery, and social disapproval, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and staging by Joe Wright.  The director Joe Wright has found a way of making vivid, even lavishly exquisite, the sensuous desire and passion of transgressive love as well as the artifice, hypocrisy, and wealth in the society in which a woman becomes entranced by a young man in 1874 imperial Russia.  The settings and costumes are imaginative, gorgeous.  Wright puts some of the scenes on a stage and shows us the changing of scenery and the planks and pulleys that support the production.  The story begins with Anna going from her St. Petersburg home to visit her brother’s wife Dolly in Moscow, in an attempt to heal the breach in the marriage due to the adultery of Anna’s brother.  Anna counsels that love and family matter more than the dalliance and that love can bring forgiveness.  Her own acts will come to test her thesis.  Anna is an intelligent and sweet woman and a loving mother who has been living on the surface of society, enjoying its perks; and when she begins to have a more complicated life, an affair, she puts herself in great danger.  Anna is actually a good woman who assumes the basic morality of others; and for her, affection that is genuine is good—and she does not understand why others would disapprove of a private relationship that would not seem to affect them.  Of course, the problem is that Anna makes that private relationship public.  Anna is innocent—or ignorant, not understanding the actual rules of the society in which she has had a prominent place.  She recognizes too late that laws are made by fathers and husbands.

Here, Keira Knightley is Anna and Jude Law is her husband Karenin and Aaron Taylor-Johnson her lover Vronsky: Anna is beautiful and open, her husband Karenin is a recessive but wise man of power, and Vronsky is dashing and quite pretty, a walking erotic dream—and dreams rarely survive sunlight.  Society members engage in a delicate and caressing dance at the ball where Anna and Vronsky first dance—enthralling movement that for them becomes an act of love.  When Anna turns away from Vronsky, she sees her reflection in the mirror and behind her is a train, the train home and the train in her fate.  Anna’s husband tries to warn her, but she sees him, Karenin, narrowly, not understanding that he is telling her the truth not merely about what he wants but about the way the world works and what is expected of her.  Karenin tells Anna what protects her and what will leave her vulnerable, but she ignores that in the name of love.  It is interesting that a birth control method is used when Anna and her husband have sex, but not when Anna and Vronsky do—and the resulting pregnancy is part of why the rules of marriage exist, as part of the regulation of bloodlines and fortunes.  The sudden paralysis of the surrounding society as its members watch Anna, waiting to see what she will do and then change their response to her as she flouts the rules, compel us to think about conformity and judgement.  However, one does not assume that Anna is right to pursue her feelings at the sacrifice of her marriage and family, reputation, and social position.

Vronsky rides a white female horse in a public race, and Vronsky and the horse fall, the horse’s back broken (Vronsky shoots the horse)—and Anna cries out at the fall, betraying her feelings, to her husband’s consternation and spoken disapproval.  When Anna and Vronsky make love, she calls him murderer.  Anna chooses sexual love before law or duty, and it is not enough for her serenity.  When Anna thinks she is dying, she asks forgiveness of her husband and has him and Vronsky shake hands.  Yet, when she does not die, she leaves her husband for Vronsky.  Her passion outpaces her understanding—and the freedom she wants has no respectable place in the society of her time; and that is her tragedy.  Keira Knightley, for all her beauty, charm, and sweetness, plays Anna with a new and dark intensity: her perceptible intelligence is infused by an increasing knowledge of the world, of what is beyond her control.  Anna’s own emotions lead her to states of mind that are both crazed and truthful.

It is amazing how much content there is in this glittering work.  The love of Anna and Vronsky is not the only love in the film.  Levin, a great friend of Anna’s brother, a man with a country estate, is in love with Kitty who was infatuated with Vronsky, until Vronsky met Anna; and Levin has a drunken, rebellious brother, a radical watched by security forces, who married a woman who worked in a brothel.  Levin, rebuffed by Kitty, goes back to the country and the hard work he enjoys.  One peasant says that since the serfs were freed, life has been more perilous for them, one of those disturbing admissions.  The man also agrees that some peasants resent Levin’s working in the fields with them, violating their sense of status and place (Levin is doing by choice what they must do, an inadvertent affirmation of his superiority).  In their attitudes, Levin and his brother are part of a changing Russia, one not changing quickly enough for Anna. Yet, Levin and Kitty do marry and by then Kitty is a more generous and wiser woman, to Levin’s surprise: Kitty helps to take care of Levin’s brother and accepts his once fallen wife.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.