By Regina Peters
Please Note: I don’t know if spoiler warnings apply to such a famous classic, but just in case: don’t read this if you don’t want to know the ending. And don’t read this if you’re expecting professionalism; like Anna herself, I can’t be calm and objective about a story like this.
It took a long time for me to accept the value of tragedy in fiction. I used to feel that since real life can be disappointing and frustrating enough, why look for the same thing in your books and movies? I still would rather have a happy ending than not, but I’ve learned to realize just how powerful a story can be without one. They make you think about them long after the last page or the end credits, wondering what went wrong and how it could have been avoided, which can often lead to new insights about human nature you might not otherwise have reached. They grab you by the throat and don’t let go.
And yes, in my case, they inspire fanfiction. I may be the only person in the world who ships Team Karenin; see further down as to why.
Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s version of this classic Tolstoy novel is my favorite adaptation, with the 1977 BBC miniseries in second place.
These are the reasons why:
1. It’s the shortest. I know how that sounds, but having suffered through all ten episodes of Anna and Vronsky’s dysfunctional relationship in the 1977 version, brilliantly done as it was – not to mention the book – I did appreciate the more merciful speed of this one. I could have wished for more of Levin and Kitty, but their key scenes were mostly there, and the best part of a film is that a single shot (Domnhall Gleeson looking up from his scythe in a blaze of autumn sunlight) can be worth a thousand words.
2. It’s a banquet for the senses. The rich costumes, the hauntingly lovely soundtrack combining Russian folk songs and Dario Manelli’s compositions, all the good-looking actors involved, and most especially the setting. They filmed most of it inside an old theatre, which lends a magical, surreal quality to the story that none of the other versions have. For example, the train rides are represented by Anna’s son’s toy train; it only takes a short climb of a ladder from the Scherbatskys’ luxurious party to Nikolai’s dump of an apartment; during Anna and Vronsky’s fateful first dance, all the other dancers freeze in place; musicians with brass instruments roam freely during the changes in scene. This idea also pointedly underscores part of Tolstoy’s message, namely how staged and artificial high society really was at that time. When Levin flings open the theatre doors and walks out into a dazzling winter sunrise, it represents that desire for a simple, honest life in harmony with nature which sets him apart from nearly all the other characters.
3. Jude Law. Just … Jude Law. I had no idea the man could be so brilliant (or so handsome with a beard, spectacles and uniform). He takes the character of Karenin, whom most of the films dismiss as a cold-hearted bureaucrat whose spitefulness gets in the way of Anna and Vronsky’s epic love story, to a whole new level. This Karenin is anything but cold-hearted; instead he feels everything so deeply, from his love for Anna to the terrible pain and anger caused by her betrayal, that he has no idea what to do with it. So he suffers quietly while everyone around him bursts into tears or shouting, and when he warns Anna to stop, he hides behind abstract ideas of duty – which, unfortunately, is the worst line to take with her, because Anna simply doesn’t think that way. She thinks in terms of romance, and her husband’s gestures (kissing her hand at the train station; using condoms to protect her fragile system from further pregnancies) are just too subtle to register next to Vronsky, who follows her everywhere, flirts with her shamelessly in public and tells her things like “You are my happiness!”. No wonder all of Karenin’s tight control finally breaks toward the middle of the film (although that’s still no excuse for shoving a pregnant woman, just so you know) and he falls under the influence of Lydia who, religious hypocrite that she is, is the only character who even gives a damn about his well-being.
I honestly believe that, in the beginning, it wasn’t even about Vronsky. Anna just wanted passion from somebody, and the young soldier happened to be the first one who showed it to her. If only Karenin had been just a little more brave, a little more honest – quite frankly, a little more jealous – they could have had a real marriage that lasted, and his steady reliability would have been much better for her in the long run than Vronsky’s impulsiveness. Or else, if only Anna hadn’t completely lost her mind after her daughter’s birth (to be fair, maybe it was post-partum depression) and decided to hate the man who forgave her, instead of the man who almost helped her kill herself when they started that pregnancy in the first place.
Oh, I could go on for hours. That’s how frustrating these over-120-year-old fictional characters can be for me. I wanted to throw something at all three sides of this love triangle – and, at different points in the story, hug them. They don’t call Leo Tolstoy a genius for nothing. And Jude Law and Keira Knightley deserve every award they’ve ever received.
4. The not-quite-tragic ending. I know this rather contradicts my opening paragraph, but it’s true. One of my criticisms of most of the other films (and even the book) is that they show so much less of the aftermath of Anna’s death than I wanted to know. Instead, in the book, we get one of Tolstoy’s very long lectures about the Crimean War and Levin’s very slow path to spiritual awakening. We get small hints of Vronsky’s reaction (enlisting in the said war), and Karenin’s (adopting Anna and Vronsky’s neglected baby) but Stiva’s unchanged cheerfulness does not ring true, and we never find out Kitty’s, Dolly’s or Karenin’s true feelings about the grisly suicide of someone they care about at all. In the 2012 version, we get at least a few glimpses: Karenin reading in a meadow with sober serenity as Seryozha and Annie play together; Stiva smoking alone in the dark as his family gathers for dinner; and, most importantly, Tolstoy’s elaborate statement of faith crystallized into a single heartwarming moment as Levin’s baby son reaches for his finger.
But with the “pros” come some “cons” as well. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is decidedly the weak point of the film. His Vronsky comes across as a shallow, selfish boy who is even more incapable of controlling his hormones than Anna, who at least has the grace to feel guilty about what she’s doing. Also, their physical love scenes come across as not so much sensual as gross; my mother, watching along with me, said they reminded her of octopi wiggling their tentacles. This may be deliberate, to show how inadequate a relationship is based on nothing but lust, but it doesn’t do much to win sympathy for them as a doomed couple. It’s not until later, when they are forced to rely on no one but each other for emotional support, that their love becomes a little more credible. And by the time Anna’s jealousy and Vronsky’s inability to deal with her had driven them to the breaking point, I honestly did feel like crying. No one, no matter how shallow or selfish, deserves to have his love crush herself under a train.
Also, the dialogue was weak in some places, but that probably couldn’t be helped; trying to compress the work of a long-winded nineteenth-century author into a form that twenty-first century attention spans can handle couldn’t have been easy. Still, when a disenchanted Kitty after Vronsky’s rejection asks her older sister: “Why do they call it love?” and Dolly, holding her baby, replies “Because it’s … love”, or when Vronsky, on being asked by Anna why she loves him, says “You can’t ask why about love”, it does not sound profound or wise so much as vague.
And by the way, just to quibble a bit more, the latter quote does not strike me as the best choice for a poster tagline. On the contrary, the whole story is one brilliant, beautiful network of proof that every lover should ask why. If the answers are “because she’s forbidden”, “because he’s hot”, or “because I’m bored in my marriage”, those answers are wrong, and the solution is to run the other way before you end up spattered across the railway tracks.
But if the answers are “because he/she’s the other parent of my children”, “because my faith tells me to forgive”, “because we think so much alike we can communicate in code” or “because she doesn’t bat an eye at taking care of my consumptive, alcoholic brother and his prostitute companion”, by all means go ahead.
“There are as many loves as there are hearts”, a genuine quote by Tolstoy used in the opening frames of the film, would have made a much better tagline. There’s simply nothing like the original.
Regina Peters was born in Rostock, Germany. Her family immigrated to Montreal when she was three years old. She studied Creative Writing at Concordia University. She may or may not be part Vulcan.