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Anna Karenina

Bob Vernon

Directed by  Joe Wright
Certificate 12A, 130 minutes

Tolstoy condemned theatre as vanity. For him the tsarist society was the real charade, a farce masking a tragedy. It is ironic then that Anna Karenina has been filmed at least four times. Wright's translation to the screen is adapted  by Tom Stoppard,  a man who has used the theatre to pursue truth in philosophy, science, politics, and personal relationships.

Wright adopts the theatrical metaphor brilliantly,  shooting most scenes within a theatre, including society balls  and a horse race. The choreography is subversive.   Servants dance in circles to meet their master's every whim. At balls, the aristocratic dancers employ elaborate gestures, intertwining their hands and arms gracefully, but with no true contact, no genuine intimacy.   

It is on this stage that Anna (Kiera Knightley) meets and falls passionately in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). I think Knightley outdoes Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh in her portrayal of a woman driven mad by passion. Jude Law plays her upright husband sympathetically, and Matthew Macfadyen plays her promiscuous brother, Oblonsky, with a resigned but cheerful bonhomie that  may lead us to  judge him less harshly.   

Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), is an earnest young landowner seeking, like Tolstoy,  a just way to order his estates. At the end of the film we see his new wife, Kitty  (Alicia Vikander), defying social convention to wash a dying man's body. In this action she gives those earlier ballroom movements true grace, a compassionate intimacy that strikes her husband dumb with wonder. He has just learnt, from one of his workers, that  it is not reason that teaches us how to live, but love. He rushes home to share this revelation with his wife, but  Kitty's actions show that she already knows this, she is enacting what Levin has been seeking. What she is doing is socially unacceptable and absolutely right.

This is a visually beautiful film,  photographed by Seamus MacGarvery, about an elegant but ugly society, where highly defined and meaningless hierarchies and etiquettes provide decorous dressings for sewers.   

What does it say now, where wealth is ever flowing upwards, with conspicuous consumption mocking those compelled to live on an unliveable 'living' wage, and where a  government run by old Etonians is making the poorest pay for the folly of the richest? Where our Mcculture offers false promises of escape through the lottery and the X Factor?

At one level Karenina is about the marriage contract, love and adultery, but it is also about the social contract imposed by the rich and powerful on the poor and powerless. As much as any cuckolded spouse or betrayed wife they too are being shafted. Those in power are faithful to nothing except their own desires and interests.

'Is anybody watching?' asks Count Vronsky nervously, as Anne initiates  adulterous lovemaking in the woods. And she looks upwards. She knows God is watching. But the church offered no critique to these hedonistic tsarist aristos. Today the Russian Orthodox Church offers no protest as Pussy Riot's criticism of Putin is condemned as blasphemy. In our own Western moral and economic crisis our churches too seem muted or compromised. Anna Karenina is a tract for our own times.

Bob Vernon

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