In the popular imagination, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
is a torrid love story about an impossible love affair between a married woman (Keira Knightley) and a dashing cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But the novel is actually a much broader affair about the artifice of St. Petersburg and the dream of the noble life. Accordingly, Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s new film version places much of the moral heart with gentleman farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson)—love-struck by the much younger Kitty Oblonsky—and with Anna’s cuckolded husband, Karenin, played with pinched sadness by Jude Law. The initial scenes, set almost entirely in a theater, slip from tableau to gorgeously arranged tableau. These whip by at such a fast pace early in the film that all sense of reality and consequence is removed, even as many of the actors give genuine nuance to their roles. The most patient moments are spent in sadness or regret, aside from one truly touching moment of tenderness between Kitty and Levin, enacted with children’s wooden blocks. This beautiful film is noble in suffering but often terrible in triumph: Anna and Vronsky might chew the scenery in their doomed affair, but it is up to Law’s wounded Karenin to digest it. In counterpoint, farmer Levin’s self-revelation is in his willingness to live at all. While the men score their pained moral victories, the women are offered up as prizes or thrown on the bier. This is, indeed, a country for old men.