Monday, January 21, 2013

Two Words: Reflections on the new Anna Karenina movie

As I said in my post of September 7, I had great hope for the new movie version of Anna Karenina.  Though I don’t ever expect a movie to replicate the experience of reading the book, that doesn’t mean good adaptations can’t be made. 

Anna Karenina with Keira Knightley gets off to a great start.  The pacing is quick, like the novel’s.  There are touches of humor, as in the bureaucrats stamping their papers in unison and Levin’s awkward lack of urban finish.  The foreshadowing is nice but not overdone; Anna’s son is shown playing with a model train, for example.  And everyone is whistling, humming, carrying the jaunty and very Russian tune of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony.  A lot of these masterful touches are facilitated by the smart and interesting choice to film the story as if it’s taking place in a theater.  This also underscores how “on stage” Russian society made people to be, a fact which becomes part of Anna’s undoing.  So here again, the movie is true to the book without representing absolutely everything exactly as Tolstoy has it.  The cast, too, is really wonderful, and they nail their characters throughout.

But, after this fantastic beginning,
you get to the scene just before Anna and Vronsky are about to consummate the affair.  Anna attends a party at Princess Betsy’s which is obviously hot and uncomfortable, and she is torn by her desire for Vronsky and her resistance to that desire.  Still, so far so good for us movie goers, even though we did just watch a feverish dance with her and Vronsky at another ball.  As if a feverish dance hasn’t blatantly communicated the sexual desire of these characters, at Princess Betsy’s, Anna looks up and sees fireworks, the same fireworks that Vronsky is seeing from his carriage.  The symbolism is becoming oppressive.  But the worst crime is how what began as artfully stylized (our theater-set interpretation) becomes heavily stylized.   Now we have women standing in tableau in dramatic poses at Princess Betsy’s ball.  Later, when Anna is at the train station forming her final intent, we again get still tableaux to advertise how dramatic the moment is.  And along with the heavy style, the movie heaps on heavy sex.  While there is no doubt that Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is based on sex, it’s too bad the movie didn’t take more of a cue from Tolstoy’s delicate, “That which”: “That which for nearly a whole year had been the sole desire of [Vronsky’s] life, taking the place of all his former desires; that which for Anna had been an impossible, dreadful, and for all that reason more fascinating dream of happiness—that desire had been satisfied.”  And just as Tolstoy nicely sums up the affair’s consummation, so did my friend sum up the last three-quarters of the movie when she turned to me after the credits had rolled (including a credit for the Scythe Association!) and said, “Two words: Hot mess.”

Hot mess indeed.

But before you dismiss me as a prudish curmudgeon, let me explain the real damage of including so much sex and style: it leaves only a tiny amount of room for Konstantin Levin’s plot line.  The novel is as much Levin’s story as it is Anna’s, and my fellow MFAer, with whom I read the book this past fall, and I agreed that Levin is our favorite part of the novel, the best-wrought piece.  Levin is a young and unreligious man who cannot determine how to fashion his life—whether he should marry or remain single, whether he should live in the country or the city, whether he should mingle with intellectuals or with peasants, etc. etc. Levin’s drama is the drama of an individual coming to terms with the human condition: looking for purpose in one’s work and life, and despairing at the thought that it all ends in death.  But, for him, it ends first in a religious conversion that is so beautiful and wise that the film’s hackneyed portrayal of it in a close-up of Levin reaching out to touch his newborn son is really a shame.  It’s the kind of nonspecific Hallmark imagery that our society so often allows to stand in for honest faith. 

It’s obvious why Levin gets the cinematic short shrift—his drama is internal.  But still, the movie steers clear of any engagement with the meat of Levin’s character, even where it might have had good opportunity, such as Levin’s wedding to the believing Kitty Scherbatsky and the great scene where Levin has to meet with a priest to profess his faith when he doesn’t yet have any.

My best friend called me a couple weeks after I saw Anna Karenina.  She, like my husband and the two friends who saw the movie with me, hadn’t read the book and didn’t enjoy the movie.  “Is it like that in the book?” she’d ask of this or that, and I would find myself time and again explaining how truly genius Tolstoy’s rendering of his own story is.  At the end of our conversation, she said it was a good thing I knew and loved the book or else it would be off her reading list because of the movie.  Don’t let that happen to you.

And speaking of you—have you read the book?  Seen the movie?  I’d love to hear what you think of it.  By the way, that fellow MFAer I mentioned loved the movie, so it’s all opinion.  Share yours…

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