Anna Karenina: Live Hard, or Die Free
As if we were the audience in a playhouse, Anna Karenina started as a theatrical performance, showing how everyone was acting their part, going through the appropriate motions. As the movie progressed, these motions decreased. The characters started leaving the script, and making their own choices. The movie leaves an impression of color, elegance, beauty and deformation: incredible beauty, yet incredible destruction.
The world of Anna Karenina is a world of opulence and regulations. When the movie starts, we see those restrictions confine Anna (Keira Knightley) as a person she is not. Her world is laid out before her, her reputation is her husband’s character and her child is under his law. She is only a character in a production starring her husband, a production about Russia and its success. The audience feels for her, and wants her to break free to shine in the spotlight. We cheer her on as she finally admits her attraction to Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and eventually acts upon that attraction.
And then, as her world starts falling apart, we see the respect and faith Karenin (Jude Law) has in his wife. He offers unfailing forgiveness and extends grace to Anna. Then, we start to see Anna and her world a little differently. Suddenly, she seems selfish and cruel, subjecting her husband to unwarranted humiliation. Suddenly, the world, with its regulations and rules seems to promote stable happiness in a way that breaking those rules cannot.
Paralleling Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky’s story is a story that follows those rules. Though Kitty initially rejected Levin in hopes of becoming engaged to Vronsky, she realizes her mistake. Levin and Kitty find happiness in their surroundings, their simplicity and their roles in life. Levin works the land, and he provides for his family. Kitty reaches out to the unsavory and provides care and comfort. She holds her child with love and affection. They represent what love, marriage and respect could and should look like.
Anna asks for her own destruction: ignoring Karenin’s worries, or taking on (though not as well as she hoped) public society, asking for forgiveness the moment she thinks she is dying, rejecting it when she realizes she is not. The audience watches her drown in her emotions. Her great fear is that Vronsky is interested in someone else and he will leave her. This fear drives her insane.
Anna Karenina is a story of explicit morality, drawing clear distinctions between what is good and what will only lead to destruction. Adultery leads to such unprecedented devastation that death seems the only way out. Choices have intense consequences. And sometimes, what we think will make us happy will reveal to us our deepest darkness.
Tolstoy did not hold back in his views, and neither does director Joe Wright. He created a film with actions more so than words and took the viewer on a journey through imperial Russia in the late 19th century. The movie has still moments of reflection and foreshadowing of Anna’s impeding doom. The train is always there, it is the beginning and end of her destruction: where she met Vronsky and where she dies.
The audience could have been left with the feeling that “at least Anna lived while she was alive.” Rather, the audience is left knowing that Anna was not really alive apart from her son, and her family. Perhaps, she never was really alive in the full sense of the word, but she might have been, one day, had not her ill choices brought her to her own death.