I saw the new movie version of Anna Karenina in a packed theater on the Upper West Side on Sunday afternoon. It’s a sumptuous production, with gorgeous color schemes and painstaking attention to clothing, hairstyling, and such — all undercut by the decision to present much of the action in front of stage backdrops as opposed to realistic sets. I suppose the artistic justification was that the artificiality of the settings would underscore the artificiality of the social norms that plague our heroine; but one comes away with the uncomfortable feeling that the sets may have been an economy measure — the last thing one wants in an epic period piece.
Still, the NYC audience reveled in this story of the punishment of an adulterous woman by a patriarchal society. Was it pure self-congratulation, a recognition that we are lucky to live in a society that doesn’t have the double standard of Tolstoy’s age (in which Stiva Oblonsky can cheat on his wife as often as he likes with no repercussions, but his sister, Anna Karenina, must meet Anna Karenina’s fate)? That would be fair enough; as long as we remember that a later age will surely condemn the shibboleths of our own time, in like manner, and so on down the centuries. But whatever improvements we make in our social arrangements, Tolstoy’s story will remind us that there is no social policy that will cure heartbreak: Love is, and will remain until the end of time, the most dangerous of all human adventures.