NOTE: I’d like to preface this by stating that I have yet to read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, so I’m unsure of how much the film adaptation veers from the original story. Also, there WILL be spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Anna Karenina is the tragic story of what happens when a woman is not allowed to make her own decisions or take control of her own life. It’s about feeling suffocated by the constraints of marriage, law, religion, and society. It’s about a woman who is simply seeking to be herself, while simultaneously (and recklessly) hurting others due to the shackles that have been placed on her.
I didn’t know much about the book or film before pulling this up on Netflix, and in a way I’m glad for it. I knew the story had something to do with cheating, but that was about it. But it isn’t just about being unfaithful in a marriage. It’s also about how everyone, for whatever external reasons, is often unfaithful to themselves.
In the beginning of the film, Anna (Keira Knightly) is leaving on a trip to go convince her sister-in-law to forgive her husband’s (Anna’s brother’s) infidelities. Anna’s stance is that a sexual indiscretion shouldn’t completely negate nearly a decade of marriage and children, a carefully built home, if you will. Anna’s husband, Alexei Aleksandrovich Karenin (played by Jude Law), warns her about “sin having a price.” A bit of foreshadowing for what’s to come.
She meets with her brother and sis in law, then ends up at a ball where she meets The Other Alexei (also known as Count Vronsky, and played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson sporting an awfully unattractive but eventually somewhat charming mustache). It’s lust at first sight, and Vronsky basically stalks Anna incessantly until she finally admits her attraction to him.
Anna and Vronsky end up having a rather public affair, and essentially humiliating themselves and Karenin in the process. Everything basically spirals out of control from there. Anna becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child (and doesn’t lie about it, perhaps in part due to her marriage to Karenin being sexless) and comes clean about the affair. Things get ugly. She eventually leaves him and goes to live with Vronsky, and becomes the black sheep of society. The psychological effects on Anna are obvious as she begins to have public breakdowns and later erratic behavior toward Vronsky, accusing him of cheating (from what I understand, this was all in her mind). And when Anna reaches the point where she just can’t take it, she takes her own life instead.
But what if Anna lived during a more feminist-friendly time period? In a more feminist-friendly society?
Well, for one, she might have divorced Karenin ages ago. While she seems content enough to be in a secure relationship, it doesn’t appear as though there’s any real romance between them. This would have, of course, altered the entire course of events. Perhaps she wouldn’t have met Vronsky at all. Or perhaps he would have had no interest in her, as she would suddenly be so available to him (he did have a reputation for being with many women, after all). Or maybe Anna and Vronsky would have simply gotten married within a few months and lived happily ever after. Who knows.
And she also might’ve put an end to Vrosnky’s creep tactics. Okay, some might think it’s cute or romantic that Vronsky went out of his way to stalk Anna, but personally I don’t think it’s all that sweet at all. Maybe one or two run-ins would’ve been okay if he was already attending those events. But the man is basically at every event she attends, to the point that all of society notices him stalking her, yet they still blame her for his actions. Perhaps in a different world, people would have intervened and told him his behavior was unacceptable (and not just because he looked “desperate” but rather because it’s not okay).
Anna wouldn’t have felt as though she were a “damned woman” for her actions, and may have actually lived longer. During a few of the affair scenes, Anna more or less talks about how she’s a “bad woman” and about her sins, thanks to the world she lives in where following your heart is a sinful thing. By the end of the film, she’s completely depressed and going mad from the ill treatment she’s receiving, and quite possibly believing that she deserves that treatment. But feminism would have told her that she should not believe any of it because it simply isn’t true.
And finally, those around Anna simply wouldn’t have cared about her sex life because they would’ve been busier being happy in their own lives. Anna was driven insane, more or less, by the society that wouldn’t allow her to pursue her happiness. Folks all around her couldn’t help but stare, gossip, and blatantly show their disapproval of her affair. But in the more feminist-leaning society of today, there would be less of a chance these people would be quite so uptight and self-righteous (though let’s face it, there’s still folks like that out there).
In a conversation toward the end of the film, Dolly (Anna’s sister in law) confesses that she wishes she’d done the same as Anna–followed her heart, that is. She admits how her husband has continued to cheat on her, how she believes all men must inevitably cheat. It’s this statement that drives Anna mad with jealousy (the final strike being when she sees a young woman meeting Vronsky with a message from his mother, albeit an innocent encounter, inevitably undoing any stability Anna had left).
All in all, I loved the film. It made for an excellent late-night feminist flick, was beautifully shot (kudos to director Joe Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (whose filmography credits are all over the place, including Atonement, Along Came Polly, High Fidelity, The Hours and The Avengers), and included a small role by one of my Brit curshes, the defiantly gorgeous Olivia Williams (of Rushmore fame). I’m definitely putting Anna Karenina in my book list as well.
Anna Karenina is currently on Netflix as of January 2016.