Showing that life in high society is just a performance, director Joe Wright takes each character and makes them the lead in their own play
“I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
- Anna Karenina
Recently made into a film by director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) Anna Karenina is based on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, one of the greatest literary masterpieces. It follows the story of a powerful love affair between Anna and the wealthy Count Vronsky, and the events that unfold within Russian aristocratic society tell a tale of love, lust, virtue, vice and tragedy, and teaches the important lesson that love can never really conquer all.
For me, being a die-hard Tolstoy fan, this adaptation was long overdue and you can imagine my jump for joy when I heard the film was being released. For the past few years, our helpings of big-screen period dramas have been fairytales of charming princes, fantasy weddings and the inevitable happy endings. There is, however, a dark side of love which is so often neglected. Anna Karenina makes a refreshing change with its portrayal of the tragedy behind a love with no boundaries.
Played by Keira Knightley, Anna is beautiful. Beautiful without trying and beautiful without knowing, she is a woman who makes whoever she is talking to feel like they are the only person in the world. Usually, I’m not her biggest fan. Pouting, squinting and, generally, over-acting, I wasn’t keen on her being selected to play the main role. Fortunately, Knightley surpassed my expectations. Her portrayal of Anna as somewhat naïve of her beauty, influence and good fortune was spot-on. Her transformation from the admired, ravishing socialite to the broken, banished woman fighting for her love was almost seamless and, most importantly, believable. Moments passed where I forgot that she was acting and genuinely felt sorry for the unfortunate state she had found herself in.
Playing the object of Anna’s affection, Aaron Taylor-Johnson features here as the leading male, Count Vronsky. Previously known for being the DIY superhero in the film Kick Ass (I was shocked too), Aaron takes on a rather different role here as a charming, wealthy cavalry officer. And he does it pretty well. Again, he displays a seamless transition from a cool, confident charming young aristocrat to a desperate man, hopelessly trying to control a life and a love from spiralling out of control. He portrayed a very convincing product of the isolated, utopian society of which his character was part; you want to love him the way Anna does but find yourself hating him for living his life as normal while Anna is cast out of society for taking on a lover.
Anna’s husband Karenin, played by Jude Law (Alfie, Sherlock Holmes), had a slightly different feel to how he was in the book. He gave an almost vulnerable, tender impression as he tried to maintain the illusion of integrity throughout Anna’s affair. Despite displaying the most minimal degree of emotion, to the point where he had difficultly interacting with his son, you could almost feel his heart break as he realises his only choice was to lose his wife. Perhaps the most heart-breaking aspect to Karenin’s character was the fact that he was one of the few who stuck by his principles, his faith and his beliefs, but still came up short.
But, what is most striking and different about this film is its theatrical setting. It’s not quite set as play or as a fantasy but it takes the idea that life in high society is a performance and nothing else. What I loved even more was that Wright took this concept and ran with it; he made each character the lead in their own play, portraying the notion that life ultimately comes down to a matter of perception. Leo Tolstoy doesn’t so much write a story containing characters as write the thoughts of a character in the backdrop of a story. The physical embodiment of what each character is thinking and feeling by means of the theatre was a really good attempt at doing justice to such a complex writer – and trying to incorporate this into a film without the use of a thought bubble isn’t easy!
The only criticism I can make of this adaptation is that you need to read the novel first. This is true of almost every other film based on a book, but, having read it, there were definitely some scenes that would make more sense and have more of an effect, had you known the back-story. The story of Constantine Levin was also somewhat neglected, being almost more of a side dish to Anna and Vronsky’s dramatic affair.
However, despite the darkness, the tragedy and the emotional torment, there is a comforting element to Anna Karenina. This element is the contrasting, innocent and pure love between Kitty and Levin. Their journey towards each other is difficult, but it ends in a testament to the true value of virtue and patience. It ends, not in the midst of high society with its theatres and pretence, but in the country, where life is real, natural and happier on a much more profound level – where Kitty evolves from a naïve, sheltered socialite to taking charge of nursing Levin’s sick brother as he lay dying in her arms. Levin’s timidity, which was almost cringeworthy to watch at times, turns out not to be timidity but modesty. And as he stands up against Oblonsky’s almost celebrated promiscuity, it is evident that the shy Levin is a man of substance.
However tempting it is to end with the intense and tragic conclusion of the film, I will refrain from revealing it so that you still have something to look forward to. Films (and their reviews) have marmite-like qualities to them and I feel this one especially is a love-it or hate-it movie. I loved it. But if there is one thing I would stress, it’s this: read the book.
“He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realisation of their desires.”
Image from: http://violettavmcreation.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/anna-karenina-keira-knightley.html
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