This is a glossy, extravagantly staged rendition of Tolstoy’s classic novel about Russian aristocracy in the late 19th century. For the social elite, life was a whirl of ball gowns and waltzes, carriages and horsemen, servants and handmaidens, weekends at the country estate, evenings at the opera and afternoon teas. They lived incredibly well, while hardly giving even a thought to the plight of all the poor peasants around them. The affluent citizens of St. Petersburg were instead trying to imitate Paris, even teaching their children to speak French, or at least employing private tutors and governesses to do so. Yes, we now know that this was the peak period of the Old Order. The Crimean War, and the Russo-Turkish War, followed by World War One and then Communist Revolution, changed the face of Russia forever. But here we have the last gasp of the cosmopolitan European wannabes of “White” Russia, blissfully living their presumed entitlement of idle frivolity, except at the time they didn’t realize that their elegant but shallow world was soon coming to an end.
“Anna Karenina” is about one young socialite’s life of carefree gaiety coming to an end. Here she is, young and rich and beautiful and happily married and raising a son whom she adores, but as with Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), somehow temptation rears its ugly head, and she tragically desires to spoil her own Paradise. Perhaps it’s just boredom. Perhaps that shiny forbidden fruit just looks too delicious to resist, especially to this spoiled socialite who’s never been denied anything she truly wanted, which itself becomes part of her downfall. The dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) just can’t keep his eyes off her, and Anna can’t help but return the obvious interest. Her husband, Karenin (a taciturn, bearded Jude Law) cannot help but notice the ga-ga eyes across the crowded room, and tries to warn her of the consequences of even apparently harmless flirtation, but it’s already too late, because she’s smitten beyond retrieval, and perhaps it’s the lust itself that she’s really pursuing, but at this point the object of lust is only too willing to be intimately self-indulgent with her.
The naïve girl Vronsky was dating at the time, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), is devastated by his obvious rejection, because she had cared about him enough to in turn reject the earnest courtship of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a hard-working farmer who truly adored her. Meanwhile, Anna and her paramour enjoy a torrid affair, which soon produces the predictable result: she’s pregnant with his child. This creates all kinds of awkwardness, as Karenin, who’d offered to forgive Anna and take her back, now cannot overcome his anger and hurt. Anna and Vronsky try living together, but Anna is overwhelmed by the social shunning of all those she formerly considered her friends, and the childbirth is so difficult that her health is compromised. Worse still, she realizes that Vronsky, having given up everything for her, now is beginning the resent the great sacrifice, and no relationship, however initially passionate, can withstand the burdensome expectation of being all things to both people. We can hardly feel very sorry for either one of them, because they kind of made their own bed, but we do at least have a new romance to root for: Kitty now realizes how foolish she’d been to spurn the devoted Levin, and they, at least, find happiness together, even if nobody else around here does.
“Anna Karenina” is an unusual collage of stage and screen; of characters in freeze-frame and onscreen music melding with the background orchestration. Such self-conscious dramatic creativity risks the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, but its remarkable artistic flair sustains the viewer’s attention, anyway, especially on the big screen. This one feels like an Academy Award nominee, at the very least, for things like costume design, art direction, and cinematography, and maybe even more. It’s that visually stunning.
Ronald P. Salfen is minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.