There’s no denying the heavy theatrics and melodramatics of director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel. It’s a bold, lush and grandiose film. Unlike another film that would try to hide the artifice, Anna Karenina weaves it into the fabric of the film which not only approaches the material in a creative manner but also asks the audience to consider the nature of the characters, yes, the actors crafting a “lie” but the characters themselves are often caught up in lives of illusion and deceit.
For instance, in an early scene Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) meets with his friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and they get into a talk about the difference between love and desire when Oblonsky talks about his latest affair. To the romantic Levin, only love through the commitment of marriage is true love while the pursuit of desire is a lie.
The titular Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), sister of Obolonsky, begins the film encouraging Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), the wife of her brother, to remain steadfast to him even despite his infidelity. After all, his true loyalty and devotion is to his wife, the affair is false and fleeting. But later in the film, she suddenly finds herself attracted to Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins considering the merits of her own marriage.
The film asks the audience to consider the costs and merits of both fidelity and infidelity. One of the central ideas becomes the pursuit of happiness. If two people are caught up in an affair, and happy, does that justify their lack of commitment to their spouse? Should all be abandoned in the name of love? And what is a true expression of love.
The various characters of the film begin to naturally express their positions on these issues. Levin believes in this pure idea of love, that, when pursued, only grows the pursuit and desire of one person for life. Karenin (Jude Law), Karenina’s husband, talks of marriage as an eternal institution before God, above all else. And Karenina speaks of marriage as a pursuit of individual love.
By the end, certain characters come into a better way than others. One could debate the merits of these fates as either moralistic conclusions to the character’s transgressions or tragic fates of characters caught in a society that oppresses certain characters’ views of love. While that’s certainly a conversation worth having, what is more powerful and interesting is what the film says about how one should react in the circumstance of being offended.
There is a price to be paid for infidelity, the film makes no qualms about that, but the film also asks that the audience consider how we treat those who have offended us. It’s natural to want to be harsh and condemn those who wrong us, it’s our gut instinct, but such resentment and indignation comes at a price as well.
It’s this thematic richness and exploration that makes Anna Karenina a compelling and rich film. This is even ignoring the wonderful cinematography by Seamus McGavery and the great score by Dario Marianelli. The film is a sensory feast, but it’s the substance of what it is exploring that makes Anna Karenina a film worth pursuing.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing