The latest movie adaptation of Tolstoy’s 1877 novel Anna Karenina is getting mixed reviews, to say the least. All the critics I’ve read appreciate the awe-inspiring sets and costumes, the fluid photography and editing, and Jude Law’s performance as Karenin. How could they not? All give a nod to what I think is a brilliant idea. The movie opens in a sumptuous theater, and the scenes that occur in Moscow or St. Petersburg take place in that theater—not only onstage but in the wings, the catwalks, past backstage props and rigging. Even those who believe it distances us from the necessary emotional intensity applaud the film’s visual artistry.
This approach would merely be clever, however, if the story weren’t set in a time and place such as Imperial Russia of the 1870s, when aristocratic life was itself a type of theater, everyday interaction a form of artifice. There were roles to play and rules to follow; any improvising had to go on behind the curtain. Anna’s error wasn’t having an affair with the dashing young army officer Vronsky; it was flaunting society’s rules, falling passionately in love and refusing to hide it.
The rules, of course, were made by men, and the film offers a variety of male behavior toward women. Anna meets Vronsky when she comes to her brother’s home in Moscow, where his wife has learned that Stiva has been unfaithful again, this time with the governess. In Moscow, we also meet Stiva’s friend Levin, a rural landowner who longs to marry Stiva’s sister-in-law, Kitty. I can’t improve on A.O. Scott in the New York Times, who pointed out, “Levin’s ardent goodness—his devotion to Kitty is connected to his belief in social justice and his faith in God—stands in contrast to Oblonsky’s cheerful selfishness, Karenin’s stern morality, and Vronsky’s immature swooning.”
The problem with the film, in my opinion, isn’t the “distancing” device of the stage sets. Personally, I was relieved that the horserace, where Anna shows her fear for Vronsky’s life when his horse falls, was somewhat stylized (fake setting, real horse), because I can’t bear it when Vronsky has to shoot the horse. And we leave the stage sets when we see Levin on his land, scything hay with his peasants. Levin returns to his estate in a wonderful scene, when, with his back to the audience, he steps out from the bare stage onto an actual snowy field. I also think if the director had chosen to film this 19th-century story with 21st-century movie realism, we would not have been any more caught up in the central romance. The same critics might have disparaged it as a “costume drama.”
No, the problem is the casting of 22-year-old Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. In the novel, we begin to suspect Vronsky isn’t worthy of Anna’s love. He’s a bit callow; certainly, he has nothing at stake. He’s in love, but she knows her passionate intensity will result in the loss of her marriage, her station, her son—“You have murdered my happiness,” she tells Vronsky at an interesting point in the film, when they’re first making love. Reading the novel, we understand Vronsky’s all-powerful attraction. With his blond curls and hearty mustache and his big blue eyes, Taylor-Johnson looks as young as he is; he isn’t charismatic; he isn’t even sexy.
That makes Anna, especially as played by the intelligent Keira Knightley, look a bit ridiculous. That’s what weakens our emotional engagement. The movie needs an actor who’ll make women of any age, and many men, sigh and swoon and viscerally comprehend, if only for two hours, why a woman would give up everything for him.