Russian novels have an unfair reputation for being overly long and decidedly serious. So how do you take a tale as admired and dense as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and transform it into an enjoyable experience for a movie audience now used to 3D super heroes?
You start by asking Tom Stoppard to write your screenplay. Stoppard is no slouch, having proved his skills with many Tony award-winning plays as well as co-writing Shakespeare in Love. Considering the almost Biblical number of characters in any Tolstoy novel, Stoppard had quite a task on his hands in maintaining the focus on the central character of Anna Karenina.
It also helps to have a very stylish director in Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Hanna). Rather than aim for a grimly photo-realistic period piece painted in hues of grey and more grey, Wright instead takes a leaf out of Moulin Rouge and Scorcese’s Hugo.
This film feels like a modern theatrical production on speed. Almost every scene plays out inside one large hall. Sets change at the drop of hat – the backgrounds sliding away as characters change costumes in front of you. The colours are bright and saturated. Stage lighting and props abound. The outfits of 19th century aristocratic Russians are elaborate and sumptuous. And all of it happens at such speed.
The opening third of the film zips along at such a pace you feel like shouting, “Why the hurry?” (“Because we’re Russian!”)
So the stage has been set for the arrival of the titular character. Anna Karenina (played by Keira Knightly much in the same style as her recent turn in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method) is the wife of an honourable and softly-spoken Russian government minister in St Petersburg (played by Jude Law and his receding hairline).
She travels to Moscow to support the wife of her adulterous brother – a man who is apologetic and repentant, craving his wife’s forgiveness. As the wife shares her humiliation, Anna gently explains that the key is forgiveness- clearly she still loves her husband and he loves her, so why hold onto unforgiveness when they could be happy together again? It’s a telling scene.
Before returning home Anna is invited to various Moscow balls. It is at one of these that she meets a very charming young cavalry officer named Count Vronsky. Handsome, charming, impulsive and passionate, Vronsky is everything which Anna’s husband isn’t.
Soon they begin a fiery affair, to which Anna surrenders out of desire for happiness and control over her life. The cost of this affair comes at a high price as she sees her standing in Russian society plummet.
Despite trying to hide their love, it soon becomes apparent to her long-suffering husband. His love for her is so great though, that he rarely reaches a breaking point, instead choosing a path of forgiveness and grace which must be a challenge to any wronged spouse.
Despite suffering such humiliation he shows goodness to someone who has caused him so much pain.
Later, though, it is Anna who cannot deal with betrayal in her own life. Rather than following in the forgiveness of her brother’s wife or her husband she is consumed and trapped by insecurity.
I remember reading Phillip Yancey’s Soul Survivor about ten years ago. In the book, he chooses people who have been an inspiration to him in his walk as a Christian. Some were obvious, like Martin Luther King Jr; Tolstoy, however, was a surprise to me. But once Yancey explained how profound and central God was to both Tolstoy’s life and his writings I took notice.
Though it may go on a bit long in the second half, Anna Karenina is both a visual treat and a fine example of Tolstoy grappling with the concept of grace.