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Anna Karenina: A Love to Die For

What happens when you settle for a spouse and realize later that you’re married to the wrong person? Religious people and stoics suck it up or try to make the best of their marriages. Impulsive people (and some would say passionate people) abandon their first marriages for “love.” Anna Karenina is the quintessential woman caught in that terrible trap. Her sanctimonious husband cannot prevent her from falling for the dashing Count Vronsky, forcing her to make decisions that ultimately derail her life and happiness. She is living, after all, in imperial Russia, where nobles and princesses are locked in the iron manacles of honor and decorum.

I confess: I haven’t read the book, so I’m not the best judge of its merits. What I do know, however, is that Anna Karenina is considered by many to be Tolstoy’s finest work; William Faulkner even considered it the best novel ever written. In a thousand pages it develops myriad characters and settings that have captured countless hearts, and the novel has to date spawned more than a dozen silver-screen adaptations.

A new version of Anna Karenina, from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), reinvents the tale in ways you’ve never seen before. The movie is mostly staged within the many parts of an old theater in Russia. Saint Petersburg and Moscow are depicted with backdrops and elaborate sets; we’re meant to see Anna’s life as if played out on stage. Talking to her husband, she is set behind the proscenium; the seamier sides of town play out in the theater’s rafters and darkened wings; train stations, grand balls and horse races take place in the expanse where the theater’s audience would normally sit. The scenes progress like clockwork, the sets rotating and whirling by unseen hands.

Wright’s decision is blindingly original, but it asks us to humor what may simply be creative arrogance. Perhaps (dare I say it?) he is too ambitious here. The movie is confused and restricted, and you can’t quite pin down its thematic elements. Does the director mean to emphasize the deceit in decorous Russian society? Is he saying that etiquette and social norms make people into actors and not real people? We're thrust by Wright into uncharted waters that, while thrilling to the avant-garde, extend beyond what we're ready for as an audience.

At only 40 years old, Wright is a young director with unquestionable film-making skills: when he’s not baffling the audience, he tells a story with nuance, pathos, and visual panache. This is his third picture with the actress Keira Knightley, and it’s clear the two make a great team. As the title character, Ms. Knightley staggers her way through emotional upheaval, dripping with fine silks and diamonds the size of pistachios. Knightley has the gift of effortless nobility; she pulls off high society so believably, but never sacrifices emotional intensity in the process. We intuitively understand her love and disillusion. We’re even helped by the movie’s constant symbolism and visual poetry, captured tastefully by cinematographer Seamus Garvey. The rich costume design, from the wizardly Jacqueline Durran, effectively transports us to the stiff propriety of the time, and with subtly-coded colors, function as a compass to Anna’s ever-changing mood.

But the sumptuous production is there for our sake; Anna herself knows nothing except love. Her amorality doesn't seem deliberate; she simply follows fate in desperate search of fulfillment.

On whose side does that put us, the observers? Is Anna a helpless victim in falling for Count Vronsky (the svelte Aaron Taylor-Johnson, blonde and be-mustached), or is she lecherous for betraying her husband (excellently underplayed by Jude Law)? The movie doesn’t give an answer. Anna at times seems justified, other times impetuous, but is always blind to her own needs, tossed about like a ship on giant waves of emotion. “So this is love,” she cries when in bed with Vronsky, but it’s not a declaration, it’s a question.

The story of Anna and Vronsky is contrasted with the model relationship of Kitty, Anna’s sister-in-law’s sister, with Konstantin, but the latter love doesn’t solve our problems or incriminate Anna in our eyes. Yes, there are instances of marital bliss, but they do not assuage or counteract the marital discordance of other couples. What solace does Kitty’s gentle marriage provide for Anna, madly in love with an impossible suitor? Anna can have none of Kitty’s peace. She is deeply entangled in a love that can only be satisfied in social ruin or death.

The sad ending we all know. Anna’s relationship with Vronsky begins to unravel, and in the end she decides her life is not worth living. Could Anna have only imagined Count Vronsky’s betrayals? Is he really casting her aside for a newer, younger beau, or is Anna’s unhappiness endemic to her conflicted longings? It doesn’t matter. Anna’s suicide is an aching cry of pain that resonates with us notwithstanding. We know all along what will happen, but we fall for it again and again.

There’s a reason why Anna Karenina has merited more big-screen adaptations than most other novels. There’s no denying that as a parable, it’s a Great Story, addressing no less than the entirety of love from one woman’s perspective. Does that mean that this big screen version of Anna can be called a Great Film? That question is likely to polarize both film critics and laymen, but to me its answer is no. Anna the film has all the calling cards of a Best Picture nominee, and it’s certainly worth your time and money. But it’s a delicately distracted affair, devoid of vital juices and the ability to make us better people. We’re swept off our feet, but left wondering afterwards what exactly our movie experience was.

Anna Karenina is currently showing in New York area theaters.