An Oddly Unmoving Anna Karenina
The film is gorgeous and well acted, but you would do better rereading the novel.

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina (Laurie Sparham/Focus Features)


The new film of Anna Karenina is faithful to the novel, well acted, and visually arresting, but I wondered what the point of it was. Much of the movie is set backstage, as it were. In most scenes, extras walk around unheeding of the protagonists among riggings and sandbags. Characters walk from a conversation at one time and place to another, supposed to be in another time and place, taking just a few steps and with our eyes on them the whole time. Certain scenes are stylized and even choreographed (in the office of Anna’s brother, Oblonksy, the civil servants work in rhythmic unison). A friend suggested that the theater motif is symbolic of the staged nature of the Moscow and St. Petersburg society the novel takes place in, and I think she’s right, but it seems unnecessary for the movie to underline this. However, the conceit is actually quite useful in a two-hour movie version of a 600-page novel, because it does away with a strict sense of time.

There are still real problems with the time constraint, though, and one of the biggest is with the development of characters and relationships. Kitty and Levin are not cut from the plot, but the movie doesn’t do them justice, despite fine performances. (Kitty, played by Alicia Vikander, is particularly good: innocent, somber, and overflowing with life from a depth within herself.) Their first scene, when she rejects his proposal, is abrupt and overly comic. Their reconciliation, when he poses the question again, and she accepts him and explains her prior refusal — this conversation takes place while they are using alphabet blocks in the parlor after dinner — is almost as sweet and as overly complicated as it is in the book.

One of the most fleshed-out characters, and one who gets a lot of screen time, is Karenin, played by Jude Law in the best performance of the film. The stiff and unloving cuckold is much more human here than in some earlier films (I once saw the silent Greta Garbo version with the alternative ending, made for American audiences, in which Karenin dies, leaving Anna and Vronsky to marry and live happily ever after!). The screenplay and Law are faithful to Tolstoy’s character, a betrayed man who is overcome with the need to forgive his wife, only to gradually come to hate her again as she continues to separate herself from him.

A subtle but maybe effective, though inaccurate, detail of the film is Karenin’s taking out a box of prophylactics before he and Anna go to bed in several scenes. I wasn’t sure what this was at first, and neither was my friend’s fiancé, who initially thought it was a glasses case. This use of contraception is not mentioned in the book, and I don’t see any reason why the upright civil servant Karenin, always concerned about image and honor, wouldn’t want to have more children with his wife. But perhaps it is a symbol (an interesting one for filmmakers in our age to choose) of the distance between this particular husband and wife, and of Karenin’s view of Anna as no more than a part of his image and honor.

There is a scene in the novel where contraception is discussed, but it is contraception between Anna and Vronsky, not Anna and Karenin. After she has Vronsky’s daughter, whom she seems to love much less than her legitimate son, Seryozha, Anna tells Dolly that she is using contraception. Dolly doesn’t know that such a thing is possible and is more shocked by it than by Anna’s open adultery.

Anna herself in the film, played by Keira Knightley, is of course tortured — first by temptation, then by guilt, and finally by insane, paranoid jealousy and despair. Knightley portrays all these states well, and is very good in the scenes where Anna thinks she is dying and is frantic for her husband’s forgiveness — and yet I was not terribly moved. There is a deeper character to Anna — she is strong, emotional, and willful — that underlies the turmoils she goes through in the story. That seemed to be lacking in Knightley’s Anna. When we meet her first with the conniving and somewhat vicious Countess Vronsky (an impressive Olivia Williams — why are British actresses so much more willing than American ones to play middle-aged characters at middle age?), and a little later with the heartbroken Dolly (an excellent Kelly Macdonald), we don’t see the inner restlessness and sadness behind her calm, quiet, sensual beauty. Without this underlying character, it’s hard for us to be taken by Anna, or to care when she throws herself under that famous train.

— Lucy Zepeda is an editorial assistant at NRO.