It was Leo Tolstoy who said that ‘there are as many loves as there are hearts.’ And so it is not surprising that he wrote Anna Karenina, often called the greatest of all novels; surpassing in humanity even the earlier War and Peace.
Last night I treated myself to watching the acclaimed director Joe Wright’s bold, new vision of the epic story of love. And walked across the sleeping city afterwards, more certain than ever that in this contemporary world were human interactions are referred to in acronyms and measured in minutes … every day there is a little bit less space left in it for me.
But alas back to the story.
The year is 1874. Russia’s aristocracy is as numerous and as dazzling as muzhiks are downtrodden. Winds of change are in the air.
Vibrant, and mesmerizing, Anna Karenina (played beautifully by Keira Knightley) has it all; she is the wife of Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official to whom she has born a son, and her social standing amongst the fashionable aristocracy of St. Petersburg could scarcely be higher. Her life resembles life of every other upper-class women of her time; married at 18 to successful and kind but dull man whose daily routines are as predictable as are passionless, Anna’s role is that of a dazzlingly beautiful ornament. In that gilded cage, Anna is suffocating and her only ray of sunshine is her beloved son.
She journeys to Moscow after a letter from her good-natured, but notoriously philandering brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen), arrives, asking her to come and help save his marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). On the journey, Anna makes acquaintance of Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) and her son, the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
When Anna is introduced to Vronsky, there is a strong, mutual spark of instant attractions that cannot, and will not be ignored. The Moscow household is visited by Stiva’s best friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), an overly sensitive and compassionate landowner. In true Slav’s fashion and just like Leo Tolstoy himself, Levin is tortured by his search for meaning of life. It has been often observed that in Levin, Tolstoy has given us a true reflection of himself.
Levin is in love with Dolly’s young sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Inopportunely, he proposed to Kitty bus she is infatuated with Vronsky. Devastated, Levin returns to his Pokrovskoe estate. Kitty herself is heartbroken as Vronsky only has eyes for Anna and the married woman reciprocates the younger man’s interest.
Anna struggles to regain her equilibrium by rushing home to St. Petersburg, Vronsky follows. She attempts to resume her familial routine, but is consumed by thoughts of Vronsky. A passionate affair ensures, which scandalizes St. Petersburg society. As one of the fashionable ladies observed; ‘I would not mind if she broke the law, but she broke the rules.’ And in an image-obsessed society, that is an unforgiving sin. It will prove to be a mortal sin.
Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty found their love again and marry into blissful domestic happiness. Just like Tolstoy himself, Levin ends up happy, healthy husband and father, with his love of peasants, land and simple pleasures and his disdain of hypocrisy, fashionable liberalism and drawing-room religion.
While Karenin, who initially attempts to preserve their marriage, partially out of love for Anna, but mostly to prevent further scandals, is eventually placed in an untenable position and is forced to give his wife an ultimatum. She will either give up Vronsky and in return continue to enjoy Karenin’s protection not only for herself, but also for her daughter whose father is Vronsky, or she will choose Vronsky and forsake all else; including both her children, her name and all she ever knew.
Anna chose Vronsky … and died for it.
In one of the last scenes in Wright’s theatrical master-piece; after Anna’s suicide, Karenin is seen reading a book amongst blossoming meadows while both Anna’s children are happily playing nearby.
As a witness of his time, in Anna, Karenin, Levin, Kitty, Stiva, Dolly and Vronsky, Leo Tolstoy has given us unprecedented glimpse into Russian society in 19th century. But above all he has asked us to consider our human heart … he would not have been true Slav if he has not.
So for his (and mine) sake, forgive for a moment that we live in speed/internet/txt dating and such world … and just listen for a moment your pure human heart … if you are Anna what would you do? Would you forsake all for burning passion whatever the price, or would you have chosen passionless but safe return home however suffocating it might be?