Suppose it’s possible to become addicted to another person. Or, addicted to the way that person makes you feel. Suppose this pseudo-addiction is as strong as an actual physical addiction to something powerfully destructive like heroin, for example. Supposing that’s possible, what kind of a relationship do you think one could have with the object of his/her addiction? I would assume it’d be an unhealthy one, to say the least. But I don’t have to speculate because I’ve now seen Anna Karenina. Anyone who has seen the film or read Tolstoy’s novel will tell you: the relationship is capable of destruction of epic proportions.
I walked into it blind, never having read the famous novel on which it’s based nor seen any previous film adaptation. I had a vague idea that it was a love story but otherwise, knew no details. Set in 19th-century Russia high-society, it follows aristocrat Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) as she enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna begins the story happily married and settled in her role as wife to the upstanding Karenin (Jude Law) and mother to their young son. While visiting her brother and his family, she happens to meet the charming Vronsky and is immediately attracted to him. She resists him at first despite his aggressive pursuit of her but eventually gives in and what ensues is an affair so wholly destructive, it’s actually a little painful to watch.
The films depicts three possibilities of love: that of Anna and Vronsky – the kind of all-consuming love that gets each participant to abandon everything, even themselves, leaving them wandering like a ship without anchor in dangerous waters; that of Oblonsky and his wife Dolly – the shallow kind of love that offers a sense of security and purpose but never any real satisfaction; and that of the third couple the films depicts, farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and the pretty, young socialite Kitty (Alicia Vikander) – a love that is simple and true, albeit passionless, giving a moderate amount of relative happiness. And this is the film’s greatest success: comparing these varying relationships without favoring one over another. Director Joe Wright has no interest in telling us which is best, or most right. He simply lays each of them out for us to watch and the conclusions we draw are our own.
I found it difficult to relate to Anna because of the many terrible choices she made. I understand the intoxication of falling in love and how it consumes you, so her choice to engage in the affair didn’t cause my disconnect. But her willful refusal to understand or even acknowledge the pain she caused her husband and her child and her petulant behavior toward the man for whom she sacrificed everything kept me from ever becoming really invested in her. Her obsession with Vronsky seemed to me symbolic of addiction, reminding me of an alcoholic’s love and need for booze or even of Gollum’s love of The Ring – they can’t give it up even though it only causes them pain and destroys all else that they hold dear.
The costumes and make-up are stunningly beautiful. Keira Knightley is absolutely gorgeous and one damned talented actor. Hard as it was for me to relate to Anna, I still found myself liking her and wanting her to find some happiness, which I attribute to Knightley’s passionate portrayal. Jude Law, Matthew MacFayden and Aaron Taylor-Johnson all give excellent performances. MacFayden provides the comic relief as Knightley’s brother, Stiva Oblonsky, who loves his wife but can’t resist the temptations of the flesh of the young, pretty women around him. The social commentary there, in the contrast of the complete lack of consequence to Oblonsky’s many affairs to Anna’s loss of absolutely everything in response to hers is nicely constructed and yet another reason I’m grateful to have been born in a time and place where women aren’t so wholly discriminated against.
The set design is beautiful and entirely original, staged like a play with the convenience and ease that allows one scene to be that of a frigid outdoor train station and right through the door to the next, the warmth of Karenin’s elaborate home. I’m not sure why they chose to have the set design like this and while it is gorgeous and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a feature length film, I can’t say that it worked, entirely. I get the whole “All the world is a stage” idea but I felt like it kept me moderately detached from the narrative. The scenes between Anna and her son in particular felt too removed. The stage, empty of all but the boy’s bed, felt too cold and empty to allow much emotion in. Such detachment worked to my advantage at other times, though, particularly at Anna’s lowest points, where it kept me from falling into utter despair right along with her.
Anna Karenina is worth seeing for the compelling performances and gorgeous sets and costumes alone. It isn’t a story I’ll soon revisit but the ideas put forward about love and relationships are ideas we, as human beings, have been consumed with for centuries. The question of whether it is better to sustain moderate happiness or blindly walk into what could potentially be the decimation of everything sacred and dear for the possibility of a greater joy. The choice is yours.