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Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Heart of a Woman

Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, was first published in instalments. In this respect, it was an early soap, as vast as the Russian steppe though constrained within the norms and mores of life in St Petersberg and Moscow.  The central character is a person of comfortable means, a princess among her extended family and friends, but her story is not unique in either rural or urban Russia of the day. She is neither fickle nor flirtatious. Yet, Anna Karenina - safely and stolidly married, the mother of a son, champion of what's sensible and straight - comes to us as the immortal tale of the fallen woman. Nothing prepares her for the wild upwelling passion that is her desire for the young Vronsky. And this morality play seems to suggest that passion does not "go gentle into that good night."

Anna Karenina at the train station

What makes Joe Wright's 2012 film version worth viewing is a contemporary stylised approach. The frame is a formal theatre, sometimes with the proscenium sometimes in the round, sometimes in the chamber. He sets the viewer firmly as spectator, outside the frame. Then with elaborate costume and characterisation, he recreates Russia before the revolution. It is a Russia still full of the contradictions of peasant and power centres, and seething with desires to break free. His characters are not caricatures but their actions are predetermined. It is a Stoppard trick, to inflate a small story within the limited sphere of a stage; creating tension that builds with the force of inevitability. Thus, Russia is evoked without ever stepping into her landscape.

Distanced by time, space, liberties in relationships, traditions and dress, the tragedy of Anna Karenina gathers the momentum of a runaway train.

The key to this century's interpretation of Tolstoy's epic romance owes as much to  playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, contemporizing Shakespeare) as to director Joe Wright. With earlier directorial credits for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Wright is reunited with Keira Knightley for the Karenina role. Wright also directed The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr; and Hanna with Saoirse Ronan. He professes to love the cinematic sweep of the films of David Lean (Dr Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia).

For Knightley, playing Anna offers the full range of woman's roles - social dowager, wife, mother, sister, besotted lover. Hers is not the saga of old Russia. It's about the compulsions of the human heart. To be ruled by environment or nature? Culture or craving? Here is crash-and-burn passion - emotions of epic proportion - delivered within a lifestyle that is duty-bound by the obligations of privilege. Consider and judge her at your leisure.

She first meets the young Vronsky who is at the train station to meet his mother. He is Dionysus to Alexei Karenin's Apollo. Karenin is upright, stoic, disciplined and routine; riven to his work. As his wife, Anna is his reflection: "Is this about my wife? My wife is beyond approach. She is, after all, my wife." To Anna, he says, " I consider jealousy to be insulting to you and degrading to me. I have no right to inquire into your feelings. They concern only your conscience."

Alexei Karenin played by Jude Law
Vronsky is bold, challenging. He consumes her with his eyes, to the point of rudeness; and stalks her at the balls and in public places. She receives his unspoken desire, she resists. But her heart has already responded, and beyond reason, she lets go of all the restraints of the life of a respectable married woman and mother. To her appeal, "If you have any thought for me you will give me back my peace!" he responds, "There can be no peace for us, only misery, and the greatest happiness."

Count Vronsky played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson
It's ironic that both men are named Alexei. But when Anna calls out "Alexei" at the horse race in which Vronsky falls and has to shoot his horse, and Karenin responds to console her, there's no doubt who her anguish is for.

So what's new? This is an old story today. One may even wonder what Tolstoy could have devoted over 600 pages to. But that's as if we were to look at a season-long television series in one go. This version of Tolstoy's classic is just over two hours long, filmed mainly on sets in Britain. Not quite 200 years since it was written, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has evolved into the quintessential story of the woman who has everything, but still falls. But hey, wasn't that the story of Eve?

(Photos from the IMDb site for Anna Karenina)

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