If there’s one thing in life that’s unfair, it’s the way women in extramarital affairs are treated. Former director of the CIA, General David Petraeus, will in time, no doubt, be returned to hero status. The wronged wife, Holly Petraeus, will forever be trivialized as a bespectacled frump. The mistress, biographer Paula Broadwell, already pilloried in the press as the irrational other woman, will disappear as completely as Monica Lewinsky.
Mistresses, with their legendary passion for life and disregard of convention, have long been creative fodder for writers and filmmakers. None has been more memorable than the emotional heroine of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, Anna Karenina, often called the greatest novel ever written.
Despite the book’s 860-plus page length, generations of filmmakers (Russian, English, American, even Egyptian) have taken up the challenge to translate the story into a two-hour format. This year’s version, the 12th since 1914, is a spectacular, visually astonishing British production, starring actors mostly from the U.K. and directed by London-born Joe Wright (Atonement).
The film may not be for everyone. Some complain it can be slow at times, the adaptation by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) too contemplative to be exciting. The most common grumble is that the sexual obsession everyone expects is subdued by the dazzling cinematic flourishes. I loved every second of it and can’t wait to see it again.
Like the novel, the movie reveals two contrasting perspectives of life in Imperial Russia, in the 1870s. There is high society in St. Petersburg and Moscow, worlds of sumptuous luxury where the women drape themselves in jewels and servants cater to their every whim. The men indulge in horse racing and romantic liaisons. Gossip is the conversational style and hypocrisy is the standard behavior. As if pointing out the artifice of this society, director Wright puts most of its scenes on stage, literally — even the horse race is shot on lavish vintage theatre sets, framed by a proscenium, with life going on both in front of and behind the stage. It’s a spectacular, obviously theatrical device that will enchant you so fiercely you gasp in amazement.
The second story is told in a more traditional way. It’s rural Russia, where humans connect with the earth and live according to the seasons. Landowners sweat alongside their serfs, swinging scythes to cut the sun-drenched wheat.
Princess Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is a St. Petersburg socialite, in a secure but stifling marriage to Count Karenin (Jude Law), a respected government bureaucrat 20 years her senior. She is however devoted to their 8-year-old son.
After a 21-hour ride on a snow-covered train, Anna arrives in Moscow to help solve a family crisis there. Her funny rapscallion brother, Prince Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), has been caught dallying with the governess. His wife, Princess Dolly, is devastated.
“Sin has a price,” Karenin had intoned ominously when he heard of his brother-in-law’s scandal. Nevertheless, Anna begs Dolly to forgive her husband. Little does she know that soon she will need absolution herself, for her life is about to change dramatically when she catches the eye of debonair cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). He mesmerizes her at a fancy ball, dancing so provocatively — swirling, touching, teasing, coming in close, pushing away, staring into her eyes as their bodies express their longing — that they become oblivious to the wagging tongues and disapproving looks from the surrounding crowd.
Meanwhile Oblonksy’s friend, Koysta Levin (Dublin-born Domhnall Gleeson), comes to town from his country estate. He clumsily proposes to Dolly’s younger sister, Princess Kitty (Swedish actress Alicia Viklander) but she blithely rebuffs him, breaking his heart.
Back in St. Petersburg, Anna is pursued by Count Vronsky until she succumbs, loving him as intensely as he claims to love her. Alas, it’s a match, not made in heaven, but in exquisite misery. The passage of time is not good to them. Count Vronsky suffers no negative consequences from the affair. An unmarried man with money, he easily retains his position in society, even flirts openly with some of the young princesses.
But Anna becomes a pariah, shunned by those who used to admire her. “She’s not a criminal,” her former friends say, “but she broke the rules” And got caught. The disgraced mistress can never be included in the clique again. Beauty won’t save Anna, nor will love. Tragedy is her only fate.