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Anna Karenina – Film and Book Reviews

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by JKnick (subscribe)
Freelance writer
Published March 17th 2013
Read the book, watch the movie
The Film

The 2012 British film was adapted by Tom Stoppard from Leo Tolstoy's 1877 novel. It was directed by Joe Wright and stars Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina, Jude Law as Alexei Karenin and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Alexis Vronsky. Working Title Films produced the film in collaboration with Studio Canal. It garnered nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, the 66th British Academy Awards and the 17th Satellite Awards, including a best actress nomination for Knightley and best adapted screenplay for Stoppard. It was awarded the best costume design at the British Academy Awards.

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The film does a great job of adapting an eight hundred-page novel into a two-hour film. It starts out as a theatre production with a quasi-revolving, changing stage, evolves into cinematographic scenes and reverts back into stage scenes every now and then. It succeeds in portraying the time and the place that was Imperial Russia, in delivering the melodrama in which the characters play, and the tragedy that is Anna Karenina.

The costumes are splendid and so is the stage production. Personally, I seldom like Jude Law, but he's brilliant as the betrayed and abandoned Karenin and I love him here. Knightley makes an excellent Anna and, Taylor-Johnson, a superb Vronsky. Other characters are equally wonderful, but the audience doesn't get as much time to get to know them as the film revolves around these three main characters.

The Book

The book is a complete and unabridged version that was first published by Wordsworth Classics in 1995, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. The book reads as if it was written in English, which can only be attributed to a highly skilful translation.

Leo Tolstoy started writing Anna Karenina in 1873, four years after he finished War and Peace. He considered Anna Karenina as his first real attempt at a novel of pure fiction. At a time when Tolstoy was going through a period of struggle and self-searching, he also experienced an acquaintance's tragic suicide, which affected him intensely. He was regarded as both a reactionary and a nihilist in some quarters and he subscribed to Arthur Schopenhauer's gloomy and pessimistic views of society and human life.

Tolstoy withdrew from literature and became depressed after finishing War and Peace and before picking up the pen again to write Anna Karenina. It was a good thing he did pick up the pen again or we would have been deprived of this wonderful and beautiful classic of a novel.

It starts with Prince Stephen (Steve) Oblonsky's trials and tomfoolery as a husband in Moscow and his wife's (Princess Darya or Dolly) dilemma of staying in the marriage or leaving her husband and taking their two young children with her. It introduces Countess Anna Karenina as Steve's married, wealthy and socialite sister from St. Petersburg. Anna's visit to Moscow to help talk Dolly out of leaving Steve brings up other important characters, such as Kitty (Princess Catherine Shcherbatskaya), Dolly's youngest, marriageable and pretty sister and Count Alexis Vronsky, who courts Kitty vapidly. It also heralds Constantine Levin or Kostya, who comes to Moscow from the country to ask Kitty to marry him.

Anna's and Vronsky's first-time meeting at the railway station in Moscow is ill-fated. Anna's return to her older and devoted husband, Alexis Karenin and their young son, Serezha, is the last of their normal, agreeable family life. Vronsky continues to pay court to Anna in St. Petersburg, noticing and knowing that the attraction is mutual. Anna resists at first and then can resist no longer.

Pregnant with Vronsky's child, both Anna and Vronsky are unhappy and discontented with their situation. Anna reveals all to Karenin who vacillates between divorcing and leaving her to the fate of a fallen woman and keeping up with the family front and safeguarding Anna from societal enmity and antipathy, knowing that it will also make her continue to suffer. Anna stays at first, afraid that she will never see her son again. She almost dies giving birth to her daughter, which makes Karenin forgive her and, even Vronsky.

Anna eventually leaves Karenin and her son and goes and lives happily abroad with Vronsky and their daughter. They come back to Russia, unaccepted, disesteemed and disfavoured in both St. Petersburg and Moscow societies. They live in the country, where they feel happier due to the lack of judgement but where they also feel bored and discontented. Vronsky's business and family affairs bring them back and forth between country and cities.

In the meantime, life for Levin, Kitty, Steve, and Dolly also goes on. Kitty falls seriously ill due to a combination of embarrassment, disappointment and disillusionment after her first love blunder. She goes abroad with her parents and after a period of recovery there and at home, she meets Levin again in Moscow. Levin hasn't stopped loving her and Kitty, unknowingly to her during her courtship with Vronsky, loves Levin too. He is an old family friend, but Kitty felt beholden to Vronksy because of her mother's match-making. They get married and move to Levin's country estate. Dolly, now a mother of many children, dislikes her unfaithful, deceitful husband more and more but stays with him.

Karenin doesn't grant Anna divorce. Anna sees her son only one other time when she sneaks into her former home on her son's birthday. She becomes so unhappy and depressed with her situation that she resorts to taking morphine in order to sleep at night. She becomes contentious and fractious with Vronsky, afraid of him being with other women and of leaving her. She becomes needy of him and his attention; one moment, she's amiable and amicable, and then complaining and harsh the next. She considers over-dosing on morphine to solve all her problems and to make Vronsky suffer. Vronsky tries and can't do anything to settle her and make her restful. It is during one of these desperate and tortured times that Anna commits suicide by throwing herself on the train tracks in front of an oncoming train.

Some points of comparison

The book delves into all the characters' individual lives, loves, challenges, struggles, and joys. The film centres on Anna, Vronsky and Karenin and shows only a bit of the other characters. Tolstoy wrote for Levin to be the 'white' to Anna's 'black', the salvation to her ruination and hope as an antithesis to despair.

Bonaparte's saying 'A picture is worth a thousand words' cannot be more true as in the film. The dance ball scene at the start prefaces and conveys a melancholic despondency that underlies the entire film. Levin is conspicuously absent in the scene; in the book it is where a fundamental part of his life happened.

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Another powerful scene from the film is Karenin's reaction to Anna's open display of her feelings regarding Vronsky at the races and Karenin's subsequent delicate handling of the situation in public as well as in private, when Anna admits to his suspicions. The scene is taken directly out of the book but is communicated to the audience as only the medium of film can do – with compelling visuals, acting and sound.

The book examines and displays Vronsky's love and dedication to Anna. He attempts to kill himself when he thinks Anna is dying while giving birth and he ignores his mother's requests and enticements for him to marry a young girl from a wealthy and distinguished family. He is concerned for Anna's feelings when she decides on going to the theatre and out into a disapproving, to-her-hostile society; and when Anna dies, he volunteers in the army to fight in the Serbian-Ottoman war, knowing full well that he will most likely be killed. The film attempts to convey Vronsky's feelings for Anna but doesn't succeed in doing so fully; the audience is left open to its subjective interpretation.

Tolstoy's characterisation of Levin as an upright and decent man makes me, the reader, like Levin. He is, by no means, all virtue and goodness. Like the rest of humankind, Levin is subject to bouts of doubt and angst, but he is motivated by doing good to others and the world around him. Law's performance in the film makes me, as part of the audience, like Karenin as he suffers through and deals with Anna's betrayal honourably.

Last but not the least, Tolstoy gave 'Alexis' as the same first name to both Karenin and Vronsky; the film gives them two different first names, understandably, to distinguish them from each other.
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