By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — "Sin has a price, you may be sure of that." The titular character (Keira Knightley) doesn’t heed husband Alexei’s (Jude Law) advice in the oh-so-lush new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina" (Focus).
But if she did, of course, there would be no plot, so it’s on with the obsessive adultery that destroys her.
Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard cover nearly all the elements from Tolstoy’s sprawling 1877 novel, but they present about half of it in a highly stylized manner, using a theater as both a framing device and a setting, including the auditorium and the rafters.
Actors in a film standing around like statues lends a science-fiction look to the proceedings. The device is effective, though, when Anna scandalizes an entire opera audience by her presence and a couple of hundred extras freeze with their lorgnettes, mouths agape.
The intent may have been to use artifice to place distance between the viewer and the very sad story, suggesting — shouting, rather — that the actors are playing archetypes. But it looks pretentiously artsy and creates the unpleasant sensation that the movie audience is completing an assignment for English class.
C’mon, it’s a Tolstoy novel — a stout favorite, filmed many times. Bring on the lavish costumes, furs, ice-covered trains and the classic dialogue. Especially the trains! They’re so versatile, after all. They can transport passengers or serve as omens, symbols of lust or vehicles of divine retribution.
At the outset, Anna is happily married to Alexei, a government official in St. Petersburg, and she’s also devoted to their young son, Serhoza (Oskar McNamara). On a Moscow visit to her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), however, she encounters Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a handsome cavalry officer, and is immediately smitten. Oblonsky has an illicit affair of his own going on, since he’s cheating on wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) with their children’s nanny,
Alexei is aware of Anna’s initial infatuation, and tells her, "I consider jealousy to be insulting to you and degrading to me." He also reminds her that adultery "is a crime against God."
That’s not enough to stop her, and she begins a heated liaison that produces an out-of-wedlock girl.
Alexei isn’t demolished by that either, and takes the child into his household, although he hisses at Anna, "I thank God the curse of love is lifted from me!"
If he grants her a divorce, Alexei reminds Anna, under the law she’ll be unable to see her son again, and she and the count will have no legal or social standing even if they marry. They’ll be outcasts, rejected by decent people.
But Anna is by now as addicted to Vronsky as to the liquid morphine she’s using.
This version includes Tolstoy’s rarely filmed subplot involving the sturdily honest rural landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Dolly’s younger sister, who manages to find true love after Vronsky rejects her. Just as Anna is steeped in wrongdoing, Kitty is sterling in her virtue.
Yet this "Anna" is difficult to take seriously. Why, we’re left to wonder, would Anna reject her upright and doting husband in favor of an effete aristocrat given to dressing in all white, striking poses, pursing his lips and holding his cigarettes daintily between thumb and index finger?
The film contains nongraphic adulterous sexual activity, fleeting rear male nudity and a scene of breast-feeding. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.