I started rereading Anna Karenina in November, knowing I’d want to see the new movie, and knowing it couldn’t convey the kinds of reflections Tolstoy gives us with his omniscient point of view and a focus on three couples. But I was excited to have snow for the outing, and I made Emily wear her faux fur hat while I got out a big black coat. I was happily sitting between my daughter and husband, when only a few minutes into the movie my heart sank.
Because I’d been reading the word “rounded” to describe Anna’s beauty, I hadn’t expected much of Kiera Knightly, but I was won over by her grace and sparkle that came off as both charming and fragile. The screenplay seemed thin, but I’d known it couldn’t cover the novel’s hundreds of pages and I wouldn’t get enough of Levin and Kitty. But I was dismayed by the broken fourth wall, the showy curtains and signage, way that the characters stepped across ladders or sandbags to new scenes, the cameras backed off to reveal frames, being reminded that the parlor, skating rink, or opera house were only stage sets. These had been characters that I loved, but this approach made me feel such a distance that I’d felt more in the hedgehog scene in The Hobbit than in the crucial train station scene. Driving home, when I asked Peter and Em if the movie made them want to read the book, I wasn’t surprised they said no. The movie kept to the plot, but rather than hinting at the reflections and feelings under the surface, the stagy presentation turned everything into a soap opera.
Almost everything I loved was missing, and there’s so much I love in this novel. Not every single page — there were skimmable ones about various bureaucracies, though even then, or when Tolystoy’s most cynical in court houses, there’s something: I liked Anna’s husband consulting a lawyer who tried to look serious, but couldn’t help trying to catch moths during their conversation. There’s not a character here you can’t help liking to some degree, for Tolstoy shines light onto all angles of their souls – a word he uses often. The point of view of Anna’s son is heartbreaking, as the little boy tries to understand Count Vronsky, who his mother clearly likes, while no one else in the house does. When Anna leaves with Vronsky, the little boy is told she’s dead, but can’t believe that. Nevertheless, we see him struggle with trying to reconcile what he’s told with what he sees, a schism that’s a theme throughout the novel, along with varieties of love, faith, and forgiveness.
The drama comes from moments such as being given layers of thoughts, then, often because of chance and circumstance, an invisible curtain, if there’s any curtain at all, pulls back for the speech, and people say the opposite of what they planned. But the movie gives us scenes like Anna returning to her old house to see her son, striding, glaring, while the music booms. In the novel, we see her lack of confidence in how she’ll be met, and the servants fret, too, as they remind each other it’s the boy’s birthday and Anna was always kind to them.
The actors did their best. The costumes were charming, with particularly excellent hats, and the scenery would have been good if we hadn’t been continually reminded, Hey, this is just a set. But I’m going to catch up on books I set aside while I was reading Anna Karenina, and maybe later this year, crack open War and Peace.