The story of a beautiful and virtuous wife who falls from grace by falling in love should be nothing if not theatrical. This is the ninth adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel with Keira Knightly as the young and beautiful Anna Karenin who is married to a worthy government official, (Jude Law) until a chance encounter with a young cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a train journey back from Moscow. As soon as they meet, a connection is formed and try though she might, Anna falls for him.
It cannot be easy to be cast as the most famous tragic heroine in 19c literature. In the book we have many chapters in which to build up a picture of Anna’s good character, making her fall from grace so poignant and our bond with her so strong. In the film Knightly has little chance to make a good impression as a beautiful but needy wife, a kind but over-zealous mother, before temptation is cast across her path. And that temptation so slight, in the form of a skinny moustachioed Taylor-Johnson that one wonders why she bothered. But unless we can sympathise with her capitulation to over-powering passion, we lose connection with the plot and all that follows.
Much of the action is set in an old Russian theatre, a very public arena. Here we get the big set pieces like the horse race where Anna’s lover breaks his horses neck and Anna’s reputation is equally damaged by her reaction. The intensity of the stage works brilliantly where society, including ourselves, is every bit as much in the spotlight as the players. In a later scene, Anna comes to the theatre again, only this time as a mistress with no place in polite company. Her rejection is complete and final, and Knightly plays the part of the disgraced mistress far better than the good woman or the impassioned lover. This is the start of her rapid decline as she is torn apart by inner conflict, driven to morphine and finally to despair.
As well as the stage presentation, much of the screenplay is translated into choreographed sequences and dances where the spoken word is left out altogether with balletic ballroom performances revealing the inner and outer tensions, particularly notable in the ballroom scene where Count Vronski and Anna realise their mutual obsession, with Princess Kitty realising her role as that of the Count’s rejected fiancée.
Intertwined with this tale of doom is a sub-plot whose message is one of hope. Another couple, Kitty and Levin embark on a marriage that has all the omens of failure, he being hopelessly devoted to her but of a humble disposistion. She, however, is determined to make it work, and in stark contrast to the decline of the Karenin marriage, their relationship starts to grow. Domhnall Gleeson plays Levin with maturity, while Alicia Vikander’s expressive face and melting brown eyes contrast starkly towards the end with Anna’s morphine-addicted coals.
Tom Stoppard was tempted to ignore the sub-plot and make it a faster modern movie all about being in lust. In the end, he made a version that still has pace but with enough time for an exploration of the nature of marriage. What it lacks in depth of characterisation is made up for by the cinematic diversity. And there is a superbly gentle and unexpected ending.