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Monday, 21 July 2014


Anna Karenina is actually two stories in one.

The first is about the eponymous heroine - the tragic heroine - Anna, who is married to the staid, solid Alexei Karenin. Anna doesn't really realise how small and unfulfilling her life is until she meets Count Vronsky, a dashing officer in the army.

There is a parallel narrative, one that involves Constantine Levin, an aristocrat who lives on his country estate.

Levin is an intense, serious man who lives in the country and dislikes the life of the city. He falls in love with Kitty, who is Anna's sister-in-law, is rejected at first by her, as she is in love with Vronsky. Eventually, Kitty accepts Levin, and they find a way to make their marriage work, despite their differences, and Levin's taciturn nature.

And yet there is so much more in this novel of practically a thousand pages. In fact, there is too much. There are pages worth of descriptions of grouse hunts, or grass cutting, and other parts that deal with the local politics of the 1870s Russia.

Much of it is hard to be interested in from the perspective of the twenty first century. The novel takes too many detours, contains too many digressions, is overweight and sprawling.

In many ways it has almost more historical value than literary. The reader learns a great deal about the lives of the Russian aristocracy, their obsession with all things French - they even speak French among themselves so their servants can't understand - and their lives of idleness and decadence.

Yet, when it comes down to it, it is Anna's story that gives the novel its value. In ways it is almost a feminist novel, we see that when Anna finally leaves her husband for Vronsky, he, Vronsky, is hardly effected by the scandal, but it is Anna who suffers, who is rejected by society, who is prevented from seeing her son.

Anna and Vronsky get what they wanted, and yet learn that this does not necessarily make them happy. Again, it is Anna who feels the brunt of society's disapproval, and it is she who falls into a deep depression, and it is her ending that is especially tragic.

In the other narrative, Levin is a vehicle for many of Tolstoy's own ruminations and doubts, his own questions about his estate and how it should be managed, and for his own philosophical questions, about goodness and God and love. Again, these can get a little repetitive, and Levin's intensity and seriousness make him a character that is hard to love.

All in all this is a flawed book. It is rich and detailed and fascinating in parts, but drags all too often, and could have done with a good editor.

The 2012 film of the novel, is a strange version. The screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, a playwright, and this is apparent quite quickly.

The urban scenes that are set in St Petersburg and in Moscow contain action that looks like it is taking place on a stage. In many scenes the actors simply walk off stage, through a door and into another set. There is little attempt at realism, it is at times dream-like, at others very mannered and artificial.

For example, in a central scene at the racecourse, Vronsky is taking part in a horse race, watched by the accumulated Moscow aristocracy. Yet the horses are shown to be racing on a stage, and the race-goers are all sitting in a theatre, watching the race and reacting to it as if it were a play.

On the other hand, the scenes that take place in Levin's country estate are much more realistic, there is no playing around with the setting. There is a sense that the film is heightening Tolstoy's own country bias, and commenting on the unnaturalness of aristocratic city life, in contrast with the pure, real existence of the country.

To its credit, the film looks wonderful. The sets, the costumes, the landscapes, are all epic and luscious and grand, in keeping with the lives of the Russian aristocracy.

Many scenes are composed like a paintings, the colours are rich and deep, the stark white of the winter snow contrasting with the darkness of the buildings, and the shapes of the people. The various social gatherings are carefully constructed and choreographed, with all of the luxury of the time.

Yet after reading the novel, the actors chosen to portray the characters don't really fit. Keira Knightley is too slight and slim to portray Anna, who is described as full-figured and imposing. Vronsky too is a much more impressive figure in the novel than Aaron Taylor-Johnson, better known for starring in Kick Ass.

Least convincing of all is Domhnall Gleason as Levin, another character who is described as solid, well-built and stocky. Gleason is exactly the opposite, skinny and slim and not at all physically impressive.

The playing around with the urban scenes is alienating, and makes it difficult to engage with characters than inhabit such a strange, artificial world. The visual pleasures of the film almost make up for this flaw, but not quite. Though at least we don't have to hear about the intricacies of nineteenth century Russian politics!

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