Anna Karenina: With love you can’t ask why

Keira Knightlyas the doomed Anna Karenina Her finest performance to date. Photo:

I waited for naught for Anna Karenina to make it to Springfield theaters. I don’t know whether AMC thinks we midwestern rubes are too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and self-destruction or whether we are, in fact, too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and destruction. But we might have been given the chance to prove or disprove such an hypothesis. But at last I was able to watch Keira Knightley’s Oscar-worthy but overlooked performance as the doomed St. Petersburg socialite, and it was one of the finest translations of a classic work of fiction that I have ever witnessed. The performances by Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson–not to mention several dozen other cast members–made this stylish set piece a true dramatic tour de force. And Hollywood barely noticed. Talk about rubes.

Anna was required reading in a world literature course I took in college, and I found it surprisingly easy to read in spite of its length. I have re-read it three times since, and it still is as fresh an experience on each return as it was the first time around.

Anna is a book about family, and may well be the story that someone had in mind when coining the phrase “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”

The setting of the story, St. Petersburg high society in Czarist Russia, may put off some readers. But the landscape of the story, the abiding love of family and the destructive effects of adultery, is as modern as today’s Star magazine. There is one major difference, however. The stigma and social upheaval of adultery that existed in Anna’s world no longer exists. Had Anna strayed today, depending on the legal counsel given prior to walking away, she could have ended up with half the property and landed a spot on a Real Housewives reality show. Her ending was much more grim.

Anna is a respectable woman in a loveless marriage to a respected civil servant. They have a son, whom Anna loves dearly. As the story begins, Anna is leaving to go to her sister’s to help save a marriage. Her brother, Stiva,  has been caught in an affair, and his marriage is on the skids. Anna, renowned for her level headedness, is called upon to restore the domestic tranquility to a family torn by a man’s inability to keep certain things to himself. Not the first time in history such things would happen, nor the last; but in one of the most famous opening lines in any novel, Tolstoy reminds us that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

While away, Anna encounters a brash young soldier, Count Vronsky. The Count, a younger man, is immediately attracted to the beautiful Anna and begins to pursue her aggressively. She is amused at first, and puts off her suitor. It isn’t long, however, before she realizes how hungry she is for just such ardor. That ardor had left her marriage long ago, if in fact it ever existed. Eventually, she succumbs. A subsequent pregnancy forces Anna to face the consequences, which include the loss of her beloved son and her respectability in society. As she and Vronsky continue their relationship, her unhappiness makes her more and more self conscious and aware of the age difference between her and her new lover. She becomes a jealous harridan, which has the effect of driving her lover away.

In the latter half of the book, we witness Anna’s decompensation and eventual self-destruction. This unhappy ending is balanced, however, by a parallel story of two young lovers who find lasting happiness in a marriage that began in love and endured because of it. I was heartened to see that this movie adaptation incorporated the Kitty-Levin counterbalance, something that was usually passed over by filmmakers for the sake of the Anna-Vronsky romance. The story of Kitty and Levin is, perhaps, where the true lesson in Tolstoy’s novel lies.

Anna Karenina is a story about forbidden love and the price that it exacts. While the price was higher in 19th century society, the price in terms of pain and family disintegration is as real today as it ever was when love trumps social strictures. But, as Vronsky says to Anna in this very fine film, “You can’t ask why about love.”

This rube from the midwest really loved the movie version. I just wish I could have seen it in a theater. Thanks, AMC. Thanks a lot.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

2 thoughts on “Anna Karenina: With love you can’t ask why

  1. Pingback: A link and an invitation | Arts and Humanities Faculty Forum

  2. When my mom visited me in Tucson, we WERE able to catch this film on the big screen. In fact, we remarked on the fact that what most would consider an “art movie” wouldn’t hit Springfield, and we made a special effort to catch a showing. We weren’t surprised at all when the luscious film won an Oscar for “costume design.”

    I confess although I’ve often thought about the novel’s opening line, I haven’t read it three times–or even once! But after seeing this production, my curiosity is piqued enough to put the novel on my “must read soon” list. Thanks for the reminder!

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