Note 1: A version of this article was originally published in The Examined Life, the e-magazine of Wheatstone Ministries.
Note 2: The novel came out in 1878. This film has been out for months. I crave dispensation from spoiler alerts.
There hasn’t been an ideal time to review 2012’s Anna Karenina. Released two months apart, it earned $8.7 million in the UK (respectable given the market size) and $12.3 million in the US (which is weak).* Presumably the distributors are hoping for an awards season bump. They may have been hoping for a theatrical re-release, but initial box office, combined with Keira Knightley’s lack of nominations and the February DVD release, indicate which way the wind is blowing. So probably, this title will be expensive or in the discount rack. It’s too bad it didn’t do better, because this is a very good film.
If you haven’t read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it would be a shame to be introduced by anything but the novel. Regularly we see a movie before we read the book, which we read in translation, usually having skimmed Wikipedia for characters and plot. Alas. Few things compare to immersing oneself in hundreds of pages of Tolstoy — I can only imagine what it must be to read it in Russian — and he saturates his work with every aspect of nineteenth century Russia in a way for which there is no substitute. I don’t know how much Tolstoy is read any more, but few things are better than spending a week unbending one’s mind in Tolstoy’s vise.
Anna Karenina is not a tragic story, but Anna is an utterly tragic character, and the novel explores the deepest levels of human suffering and sin. It’s not for the faint of heart. Redemption and forgiveness are the greatest themes, but Tolstoy does not blanch from the psychic—soulish—agonies of depression, adultery, drug addiction, and suicide in which the greatest forgiveness and redemption may be found. Caveat spectator for Joe Wright’s adaptation, which shrinks from less of the book’s depravity and may glamorize more of it.
The British release proved a strong draw for Bright Young Things—presumably because the trailer fixates on the costumed Knightley getting swoony with a mustachioed dreamboat and runs the tag-line “You can’t ask why about love.” Happily this is the least-accurate promo ever. The film is a preciously-rare, unadulterated adaptation of the source, excepting the scenes of the fallen Anna and Vronsky that Tolstoy much better leaves off-stage. Tom Stoppard’s genius for adapted screenplay is married to Joe Wright’s directorial sensitivity. Miss Knightley carries the lead better than expected, and she is the weakest casting in a superb ensemble.
The real controversy about this adaptation is its doubling of the theatrical conceit.
Theater and cinema require a suspended disbelief in the limitations of the medium. Movies, and theater more so, need the audience to surrender the disjunction between the limitations of the performance and the essence of what is performed. We cannot wholly lose the perception that what we are seeing and hearing is being put on, but a good audience can surrender to a good performance. Modern audiences are generally bad. We surrender uncritically or not at all, and the failure of many performances is in the audience. We are both too desensitized and too detached; we want to be entertained and aloof, and in neither mood are we truly engaged.
I think we should be able to be taken in. Not uncritically, but the inability to be taken in is a deficiency as much as the refusal to be taken in. Tolstoy plays on this theme, and the film doubly explodes the conceit.
Nineteenth-century Russian high society was obsessed with appearance and position. Behavior, language, and fashion were overt masquerades, so people were not themselves but veiled characters. All society events were elaborate stagings. Anna’s misery and self-destruction are predicated on this separation of appearance and identity. When she can no longer be who she is not, her fall begins.
To heighten this performative tension, Wright and Stoppard have staged the whole story. Ninety percent of the movie is filmed in one theater house with exaggerated effect. The dynamics between performers, audience, scene, and periphery are distributed into apropos areas of the theater. Such a bold adaptation could have gone badly, but Wright deftly constructs the theatrical conceit. Initially we are painfully aware of the conceit but quickly suspend disbelief merely by trying to comprehend how its creativity draws us into the play within the movie. This theatrum mundi with its claustrophobia magnifies the characters and plot in the setting of Russian society, and the audience implodes into the film. Instead of watching a movie with detachment, the audience should be drawn into the staging, and we experience the plot from the inside. This is a trick Stoppard learned from Shakespeare, and with Wright he makes it work. We are implicit in the story.
This is a film that warrants careful watching and re-watching before settling precisely on everything that it’s about. Narratively, it plays much closer to the source than most adaptations (again, Stoppard knows his own genius, and where it is surpassed), and few have rivaled Tolstoy’s understanding of human nature. The film isn’t a substitute for the novel, but it too can be an experience that enraptures us with its agony and its wonder.
Despite the deserved MPAA rating, this isn’t just a gross adultery flick. It’s more about Karenin’s compassion for little Anna in forgiving her wayward mother, and how Kitty’s love for Levin is necessary to his reconciliation with his dying brother and his struggle to improve the peasants’ plight. Despite the crushing burdens of sin and society, Anna Karenina is about the uncontainable joy of redemption, and we would be better if we could be taken in by Tolstoy—by this film if not by the book.
Fr Micah Snell has a day job writing a PhD on theology and Shakespeare at the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. You too can join the very exclusive cadre of his Twitter followers.