Leo Tolstoy's great novel "Anna Karenina," has been adapted to the screen more than 20 times, a testimony to the power and appeal of its story of a passionate, desperate, and eventually, doomed love. Its extraordinary longevity in media that Tolstoy could not have imagined testifies to an enduring fascination for generations of audiences who would probably never read the very long, very rich, very Russian novel. It has also provided a dramatic vehicle for some of the most stunning and important female stars of their particular times, perhaps most memorably Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh.
Directed by Joe Wright and written by Tom Stoppard, the latest interpretation of the work includes all the familiar characters and of course maintains some fidelity to Tolstoy's vision. It also, however, translates the story into an unusual and often dazzling visual examination of the behavior of the Russian privileged classes in the late 19th century, an epic love story conducted against a background of aristocratic tradition and a rigid, if tacit, set of rules, something like a tremendously magnified version of a Jane Austen novel.
Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the beautiful young wife of dull, pious government minister Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), journeys from St. Petersburg to Moscow to help her philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), repair his marriage and convince his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), to forgive him. While there, she attends a splendid ball, where she meets the handsome, dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson); they both feel an immediate attraction which quickly grows into passion. Vronsky pursues her back to St. Petersburg and the couple embarks on a torrid love affair that ultimately destroys Anna's marriage and earns her the obloquy of her social class.
The script touches on some of the other characters and actions of the novel, especially Oblonsky's friend Levin, an enlightened member of the country gentry who repudiates the false manners of Moscow society for the simple goodness of rural life. Levin's life in effect intersects with Anna's in another way, since Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the young woman he loves, at first believes that Vronsky will marry her. The film rather obviously contrasts Levin's values with the behaviors of the aristocracy to provide some kind of counterpart to both Anna's reckless infatuation and the triviality of her world.
But Anna's grand passion necessarily dominates the story, the love of a kind, intelligent, even noble woman for an essentially shallow young man, a love that exists without need for explanation, consuming her spirit and transforming her life. She abandons her past, her family, all that she knows and holds dear, for the sake of that consummation, becoming in a way greater for her sacrifice and her suffering.
Beyond the familiar story, the real joy of "Anna Karenina" derives from its visual conception, which combines a highly mannered and stylized, even affected, use of a 19th-century theater in which much of the action takes place. At times its stage opens up into a splendid location scene, at others the sets look purposely fake and flat, while characters observe the action from the wings as if to emphasize the stylization; the settings move in a kind of constant, lovely, and surprising metamorphosis.
The most striking visual moments occur in some astonishing and sometimes wonderful set pieces. In Oblonsky's office all the clerks stamp an endless series of documents in unison, looking very like a droll number from some Broadway musical while unaccountably, musicians playing their instruments stroll among them. Perhaps most stunning, at the ball where Anna and Vronsky meet, the dancers move in elegant, graceful arabesques in a formal ritual of courtship; the other dancers occasionally pause and freeze while the lovers perform a complicated series of movements and gestures.
Some of the wonder of the story lies in its inherent sense of fatality, literature's recognition that the only lasting loves are the failed loves, the unrequited loves, the doomed loves. To paraphrase the novel's opening sentence, one of the most famous in all of fiction, happy loves are all alike and generally uninteresting, while unhappy loves are all unhappy in their own fascinating way: where, after all, would the art of the novel be without such grand infidelities, such devastating passions, such unhappy loves?