I Have to Tell You, You Behaved Improperly
Anna Karenina is, rather famously, the most miserable of miserables. Her suffering, so exquisite and prolonged and perfectly punctuated, makes her a grand metaphor in Tolstoy, an iconic image of Garbo, and now, a gorgeous, odd, entrancing puzzle piece in Joe Wright’s new movie.
Such function here is overdetermined, of course, by the director’s predilection for elegant compositions, her incarnation by Keira Knightley, and, perhaps most especially, screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s renowned interest in how art works. This last is underscored in the first moments of Anna Karenina, in which Anna’s brother Oblonksy (Matthew Macfadyen) appears on a stage titled “Russia 1874”—revealed by an opening curtain, set in a theatrical barbershop, performing in a manner at once outsized and self-reflective. Here is the film in miniature, Oblonsky preparing to make himself publicly respectable, even as he’s been philandering with the governess.
Within minutes, you learn that he’s done a poor job of keeping his secret, that his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) is not only aware of his betrayal, but also planning her own next move, namely, to leave him. It’s up to Anna at this point to mend the marriage, to travel to their country home, play with her nieces and nephews, and convince Dolly that ending the marriage is not in anyone’s interest. Distraught at the very thought of her husband with another woman, Dolly is disinclined to heed Anna’s counsel, but the point here is less what happens to Oblonsky and Dolly than how their drama serves as introduction to Anna’s own.
And so: within minutes of leaving her brother’s home, she’s confronted—on a train—by the dashing young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), not to mention his so very exquisite mother (Olivia Williams). Each of these encounters is rendered with a mix of hyper-theatricality and super-cinema, the production design emphasizing a daunting artifice and the close-ups constructing a sensational intimacy. Anna is, as the Countess describes her, “charmante,” the framing of her “pretty face” as much a kiss as those bestowed on her by the old woman.
Still, you already know, Anna has for years been insulated by her husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a stuffy government suit 20 years her elder. Her interactions with Alexei suggest how difficult it is to maintain the surface of her marriage: where she’s vivacious and naïve, he’s stuffy and dour; he resents her spending time with her sister-in-law, he’s uncomfortably formal around their seven-year-old son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara), and he’s increasingly severe in his instructions to Anna. That their home is comprised of sets that appear at once empty and constrained, with chairs dark and ornate and shelves perfectly arranged, ensures that you feel about him as she does.
Of course Karenin has reason to be distrustful, as Anna does embark on am affair with Vronsky. She spends a couple of minutes resisting, mostly because Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is more or less promised to him. She means to protect young Kitty, blond and (relatively) bodacious, not to mention quite smitten with Vronsky. That Anna goes ahead with her betrayal—of multiple people she believes she loves—is infamously a sign of her passion unleashed, beyond her control and so a complicated rebellion against the over-controlling Karenin; the film stages the moment she loses control—or makes her choice—in phenomenal fashion, on a mucky-mucks’ dance floor with extras adorned in color-coordinated costumes, Anna swathed in a glorious and exceptional red gown and Kitty, horrified, watching from the sideline in her very white one.
The dance looks forward to other scenes where Anna makes public her should-have been-private feelings, at a horse race where Vronsky falls and she screams too loudly, at a play, where she’s transformed from a chic spectator into a huge and horrifying spectacle. Here and elsewhere, the film makes clear its intense interest in—again—how art works, how its fictions and truths, surface and underlying structure, are intermixed. Again and again, the film pans out and up from a dance floor or another public space to show catwalks and lighting rigs and pulleys, the business of play-making that insist you attend to the artifice before you, and not immerse yourself in yet another romance.
These shifts in perspective are clever, certainly, extra-Stoppardy (that is, Stoppard drawing attention to his own Stoppard-ness). The scaffolding and painted backdrops and fake horse race expose consumers’ participation in the fiction-making, Anna’s construction of her tragic fantasy because she wants it too much to be real, that is, available to be read by a judgmental public. If only she remained with in boundaries, kept her secret secret, she might have been forgiven. But when her husband feels humiliated before peers or even just observers, she is done for.
The novel and other iterations of Anna’s story, this one included, emphasize the price she pays, in an accelerating mental illness, in an incapacity to believe in her new lover, Vronsky, in her guilt and pain over her son, removed from her by the almost completely unsympathetic Karenin. But neither is Anna much comforted by the younger, frequently insensitive Vronsky: again and again in this Anna Karenina, she’s bereft, isolated, frightened. That this is more a function of her world than her is a point left to fester: she believes it’s them, and then she believes them, that it’s her.
And then she’s lost, which is to say, she’ not only lost control, but Anna is herself unmoored. It’s an interior state illustrated vividly during an argument between the lovers, at the home they might be sharing as such. She’s crumbling, weeping and wanting to be (or look) valiant, but distrusting and self-destructive, and the film grants you two sorts of access, both her collapsing interior and his appalled look from the outside. She’s reflected and refracted in glass, fragmented before her lover, whose view here might be yours.
And that’s the movie’s most disturbing insight. It’s easy and familiar to imagine Anna’s pain might be yours, to feel sad for her or share her impulse to rebellion, for these are the grand romantic notions for which this anguished female character (it’s key, too, that she is female, then and now) must stand. It’s harder to be Vronsky, or look out from his position, to judge and condemn and fear her otherness as illness, rather than embrace and frame and admire it as art.