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Anna Karenina

“To Russia with Love”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

IN 2011, THE WORST movie on the experience of shame was “Shame,” a prurient and pathetic mess of a film on the putative perils of sex addiction.  In 2012, the best film on the psycho-sexual nature of shame is “Anna Karenina,” Joe Wright’s third adaptation of a literary gem (after “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”) with an exquisite Kiera Knightley again front and center.  If you liked Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany in “Silver Linings Playbook” and her feminist refusal to feel ashamed of her hyper-sexuality, check out her literary antecedent: Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, the Mary Magdalene of St. Petersburg. In her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes that shame can be socially useful.  In one study, participants looked more kindly upon those visibly embarrassed by driving away from a car accident or spilling coffee on someone.  Shame signifies a concern for others.

Anna Karenina_004-001.rBut shame can be socially disastrous as well.  “I’m not ashamed of what I have done,” Anna tells her lover Vronsky, having left her husband for the dashing young Count, “Are you ashamed for me?” The Count, dressed ironically in white throughout the film, is played Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He has seductively large, wet eyes and a handle-bar mustache; he’s under the thumb of his imperious and unkind mother (Olivia Williams).  Tolstoy tells us that a “hot blush of shame spread all over [Anna’s] face” for “she knew what had stopped her, knew she had been ashamed.”  The cuckolded Karenin, meanwhile, is a repressed fellow who surprisingly never rages against his wife for her adulterous passion.  He’s played by Jude Law in collars appropriately buttoned up to the chin.  Tolstoy writes that Karenin refuses to feel jealousy because of its shamefulness: “Now, through his conviction that jealousy is a shameful feeling, and that one ought to have confidence, had not been destroyed, he felt that he was face to face with something illogical and stupid, and he did not know what to do.”  But that’s precisely Karenin’s problem and why he’s so undesirable to his wife: he refuses to feel anything.

For those of you who skipped Russian Lit., Tolstoy’s tome from 1877 is aAaron-Taylor-Johnson-and-Alicia-Vikander-in-Anna-Karenina-2 behemoth of a novel on a whole range of topics: love, disgrace, faith, forgiveness, capitalism, Christianity.  Did I leave anything out?  Levin (played by Domhnall Gleeson) occupies a parallel plot in the novel; he’s Tolstoy’s ideal Russian man who, in the novel, says things like “You know that capitalism oppresses the workers. Our workmen the peasants bear the whole burden of labour, but are so placed that, work as they may, they cannot escape from their degrading condition […] And this system must be changed.”  He pursues Kitty (Alicia Vikander) with an open heart, which contrasts Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) who betrays his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) with the governess.  At the film’s start, Anna travels to her brother’s home to console her sister-in-law and implores Dolly to forgive her brother.  It’s a foreshadowing of Anna’s own affair with Vronsky and the forgiveness she will seek from her husband and Russian high-society.

AnnaKareninaTitleThe screenplay, which is an exercise in compression, is from playwright Tom Stoppard who had distilled Leo Tolstoy’s novel to the bare essentials. (He’s on sacred ground here: Dostoevsky, Nobokov, and Faulkner all regarded Anna Karenina as a flawless work of fiction.)   The production design is by Sarah Greenwood who hinges all of the action on a stage.  This is a wise move and in creative keeping with the theatricality of Tolstoy’s novel.  It also highlights the performative nature of shame and that as Anna succumbs to her adulterous passions in public, all eyes are on her and her inevitable demise. Dario Marianelli, whose ingenious music for “Atonement” relied on ticking typewriters and pianos, provides another stunning score. Everything should add up here, but this “Anna Karenina” stands, like the stage, at a distance. It’s lovely to look at but somehow doesn’t engage us as emotionally as one might hope.

“I’m a bad woman,” says Anna at one point in the film and we’re not sure whether to pity or praise her.  It all ends tragically, of course, but that’s Anna’s particular cross to bear.  She’s as daring as she is doomed.  Now ain’t that a shame?