The latest film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a worthy attempt to compress the ill-fated love story at the center of the sweeping tome into two hours. Director Joe Wright distills the torment inflicted on Anna (Keira Knightley) for her adultery into moments of stabbing isolation in the camera's glare. But the film neglects the other major storyline of the novel, namely a different kind of torment experienced by Levin through his rapturous awakening in the Russian countryside. The director should have given himself another hour of film to do this. Better the loss of short attention spans and ticket sales than one of the meditative pillars of Tolstoy's epic novel.
The screenplay, written by the famed Czech playwright Tom Stoppard, flickers here and there with Tolstoy's brilliance. One instance is the all-important moment after Anna and Vronsky's love is first consummated in the flesh. In the book, Tolstoy likens the lovers' deed to murder:
"He (Vronsky) felt what a murderer must feel when he sees the body he has robbed of life. That body... was their love, the first stage of their love." (Anna later mourns her close relationship with her son as another casualty of this "murder".)
Stoppard gives Knightley the word "murderer" to repeat over and over again as she surrenders to Vronsky's passion. This gives a haunting ring to that tragic moment and is a much better foreshadowing than the train imagery that bombards the viewer throughout the film.
Jude Law plays Anna's stifling husband with great precision, down to the drudging voice and solemn, self-righteous gaze for which the role calls. Aaron Taylor-Johnson shines with all of Vronsky's indomitable swagger, and he superbly signifies his character's obsession with Anna through his eyes. (So many of the crucial messages in the novel are sent through eye contact).
But Keira Knightley falls short in the title role. She has the grace and screen presence to match Anna's magnetism in Russian society. But she doesn't pass the true test of the role in showing the terror that strikes Anna as she falls from grace and loses the bond she had with her son. Knightley's face of anguish is a toothy squint and she shows too much vigor late in the film for a character that is supposed to be blanched and bedridden by scandal.
The film could have delivered much more of Tolstoy's meditative mysticism through a deeper exploration of Levin's character. The only central character in the novel in touch with the Russian peasant and removed from high society, Levin is an undisguised representation of the author himself. Levin, like Lev (Leo is the name romanized), is an orphaned estate owner longing for a closer connection with the commoner. One of the Count's better biographers, Rosamund Bartlett, notes that Tolstoy endows Levin with the signature family trait of dikost, or wildness. "All you Levins are diky. You always do what no one else does," Stiva Oblonsky tells Levin in the book.
Levin's search for spiritual equilibrium treats the reader to some of the most moving passages of the book. Levin's moment of revelation comes when a peasant describes for him why one man will pay off his debt and another won't:
"One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly. But Fokanitch is a righteous man, he lives for his soul..." At the peasants words that Fokanitch lived for his soul, in truth, in God's way, undefined but significant ideas seemed to burst out as though they had been locked up, and all striving towards one goal, they thronged whirling through (Levin's) head, blinding him with their light.
Though a viewer of the new film adaptation would not know it, Levin had for weeks been assailed by a crisis in faith and driven close to his own suicide. He became desperate when reasoning would not bring him closer to the souls that, in the end, trade places in his life, his departed older brother and his newborn son. But a certain, inexplicable acceptance of the love he has within him ultimately saves Levin. In contrast to Anna's fate, it is a triumphant outcome for Levin's struggle with his smallness on life's vast, overwhelming canvas.
This beautiful soul-searching is absent from Joe Wright's film. Some narration from Levin, channeling Tolstoy, could bring the character to life on screen. It is admittedly a challenging task, but to forgo it is to deprive the audience of a window to the author's own tormented soul.