Anna Karenina In One Blog Post
by SHELBY SHAW
dir. Joe Wright
Screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright decided to join forces and bring Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina to the big screen. Casting aside the fact that the novel revolves around a full cast of characters before even introducing Anna, or that all of these characters go through developments that happen through much internal thinking, the novel clocks in over 800 pages, some translations closer to 900. The film, at approximately 130 minutes, is then anywhere between only 1/6 and 1/7 the total story. No matter which way you slice it, or how many scenes you condense, there is undoubtedly going to be a lot left out of the final product.
Anna Karenina is entirely shot on a stage. Why on a stage, Mr. Wright? It isn’t adapted from any play, the story is a serial novel that originally spanned four years of publication. The stage is almost a mockery of what it is introducing. I imagine them in the wings joking until their next cue, or rehearsing lines for an upcoming monologue. It somehow takes me out of the story of the novel and forces me to focus on the absurdity of the “play” before me (such as snowfall and wild flowers and train stations, all on the stage, in the house of the theater, up in the rafters, backstage, etc).
Anna Karenina is like a motion-picture version of a SparkNotes chart for the novel, one page of the most pressing plot points, all condensed for your consideration. But is it considerate to cut out so much of what was written originally? Watching the movie lets you know what happens in Anna Karenina, but it doesn’t tell you the story. Let’s take a look. Oh, there is quite a lot to look at…
TITLE: Imperial Russia, 1874
FADE IN: an empty theatrical stage with spotlights and large luxurious curtains. False snow falls “outside” in the background. Prince Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) nervously accepts a comically-quick shave, leaving his mustache in tact, long and sweeping to match the rest of his clean-cut dignity in uniform. His blue eyes (blue being a constant theme in bold color choices and emotion) are bright and lit like a child’s, the lighting feeling like a Christmas card come alive. The subtle humor and stylized composition evoke The Polar Express and I expect CGI and/or Tom Hanks to take over the rest of the film at any moment.
We quickly establish Oblonsky’s home – which he enters from his barber chair onstage – where his children receive French lessons from a very French, very buxom mistress, Mademoiselle Roland (Marine Battier), who assigns them work as she exits sans-excuse with Oblonsky into a back closet, revealed to be a literal backstage of the “set” (or is it the backstage of the “home”?). But Oblonsky soon catches himself up – finding, through a door again, his pregnant wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) in a crying fit onstage, alone, no audience in the void of black beyond her, clutching a note. We put it together: love letters and secret meetings between Oblonsky and the tutor finally falling into the wrong hands. Of course, who is really the wrong one here?
Meanwhile, Oblonsky’s sister Princess Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) stands in her dressing room, a slender alabaster figure, arms hung like a dancer at rest, the light falling just so on her in the center, reading a letter. She is being dressed. Wealth and class and impeccably good looks. The room, the set of the whole house, the train tracks laid outside, all change on-screen, a mechanical contraption of a world we know not the size of.
Anna, now having learned of her brother’s new trouble, asks permission of her high-ranking statesman husband, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (Jude Law), to travel to Moscow and visit the Oblonsky household. Her duty would be to talk sense into Dolly to forgive Stiva and carry on their lives with all five or so of their merry children popping about.
Do you think nine years of marriage and children should count for nothing against an infatuation?
No… But sin has a price, you may be sure of that.
Granted permission, Anna goes to say goodbye to her seven-year-old son, Sergei (Oskar McNamara), playing with an elaborate train set. Here, Anna reads more as if she were the tutor herself, there to watch and care for the child (whom is one of the few she truly loves deeply). Playing trains, she seems a child herself. It’s hard to imagine she and Karenin have a 20-year age difference, even with Karenin’s receding hairline and soft-spoken patience.
Anna’s youth carries her through her fate en route to Moscow. Giddily showing the locket photograph of her son to the woman across from her on the train, Anna beams the pride of a mother, but looks more like the student being proud of a report card, or young woman with a new boyfriend. “Look!” The woman across from her, Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) is taken more with Anna’s beauty than with her offering, calling her a “charming creature.” Charming, indeed, creature, absolutely. Taming and understanding Anna will only become more difficult as she gains her own autonomy; for now, she is praised and shuttled by everyone. No wonder she feels so in love with her son – they are, to a degree, in the same position, to take others’ commands and please them.
Stiva greets his old friend Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). In shoulder-length caramel locks, with a beard to stereotypically match his agricultural occupation, Levin’s country life has finally caught up to him – he has returned to the city to seek Stiva’s help in securing the woman he has dreamed as his betrothed for so long: Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Shcherbatsky (Alicia Vikander), the 18-year-old younger sister of Dolly Oblonsky. Delighted to couple and man-up his friend, Stiva eagerly invites him over.
Changing the set from office to private dining room for the two, musicians with painted faces enter into the set, a sort of on-screen intermission taking place as the background confusingly is picked up, shuffled around, twirled and swung in and out of frame. Finally, the new set is ready, as Levin’s cabbage soup is served (much to Stiva’s laughter – why order something so poor when in the company of class capable of ordering whatever you desire?). To quickly dissipate Levin’s contented moment, Stiva humorously breaks to him bad news (that has passed through in the time it took to change the set): a new rival has entered the contest for Kitty’s heart, the reputable Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (the 20-year-old Aaron Taylor-Johnson). And to be honest, Levin hasn’t much a chance – the farmer or prince charming for the Shcherbatsky Princess?
The set rotates away to a lush dreamlike staging, quite literally on the stage we now know to be the main stage, the heart of all meaningful scenes (if not all of them) no matter where, when, or with whom they play out. Kitty, looking very much the young girl she is – if not younger still – lounges on a chaise in the middle, surrounded by cloud-like backgrounds, stage lights all on her. It is not us catching her in a private moment, it is her catching us looking at her – the poise, with such self-conscious and girlish awareness, captivating the newly-groomed Levin, watching her from the theater entrance. The scene is almost comical – is he dreaming her on a pedestal, on this chaise lounge on a stage, him just a lowly admirer in the peanut gallery? But no, it is the Shcherbatsky’s ball, the first reception Kitty is holding. She uses his formal name in greeting, perhaps because it has been awhile since seeing him, perhaps because he tries to excuse himself out of the room (no one likes to be the first guest), but in her innocent-Lolita glory sitting pretty before him and all the arriving dancing couples, Levin jumps.
I came with only one purpose – I want to – will you be my wife?
I’m sorry – sorry – wrong moment – but will you?
I can’t. I’m sorry.
One of our main characters has already hit the climax of his boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-or-gets-girl drama and we’re only 26 minutes into the film.
On his way out, Levin passes new nemesis Vronsky – who looks rather ridiculous in his beamingly bright clean attire and overly-crisp good looks: hair with a dark undertone but glistening blond like a Russian Adonis, eyes a piercing blue offset by his dark lashes, skin like the continuous alabaster statues Wright has created out of all his characters. Perhaps it is his mustache, or those eyelashes, but something just seems unreal about Vronsky, and it isn’t making me swoon at once. Levin, however, senses the gig is up for him and exits the stage, entering into the rafters overhead where he watches Vronsky greet and woo Kitty on the chaise lounge.
But in the rafters Levin has another agenda: that of his screen-snubbed elder brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot), who is poor and dying of consumption with only his prostitute-turned-“wife” Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee) to care for him, although she is at a loss of how to nurse him back to health at this point. It is clear that Masha truly cares for Nikolai, who respects her deeply, but because of her past it is offered that she not be in Levin’s presence, should it offend him. Dismissing this, Levin simply invites them to his country home so Nikolai can recover.
Vronsky enters the screen through a hidden door in a “wall” of a winter wonderland; we are at the train station in Moscow now, Anna’s train having just arrived. As Vronsky enters into the train, crossing paths with the black-clad (as so often she is) Anna, he gossips with his mother over our leading lady’s beauty before she re-enters to say goodbye and hello to the Countess and her son. Even during talk of Anna’s own son, Vronsky eyes her hungrily, the plotting to win his new prey working upfront in those ice-blue eyes.
The train has brought the guillotine of fate down for Anna’s world for good – an invisible worker, covered in soot, grime, and oil, a black mass of death, has been torn in half by the train, bright candy-colored intestines oozing onto the snowy stage. Anna is devastated; she will remain haunted by this nobody she had passed by only moments earlier.
After warmly greeting one another, Anna and Stiva, like two partners in crime reunited, return to the Oblonsky household where Anna talks to a very pregnant Dolly, alone. She is bulging beneath her dark green dress, set against the lush wood and deep reds in the room – she is like a Christmas gift, or that holiday coziness full of warmth, not hatred for her cheating husband. And when Dolly cries to Anna and reminds Anna that she was not the one who did anything, Anna merely keeps her cool and asks if Dolly should have enough love left in her heart to forgive Stiva.
Kitty’s coming by to see you. She’s all grown up, and a bit frightened of you – the belle of St. Petersburg society!
Is that who I am?
Happy to have this duty done, Anna plays with the children and Kitty, with whom she briefly discusses marriage and the debutante-ism of being 18, Anna pining for the past with that forlorn “to be your age again” despite not looking so far from it. She confides to Kitty that she was the same age when she married Karenin, “but it was not love” – which isn’t immediately apparent in the patriarchal relationship between husband and wife, their union we already assumed to have been born not from mutual infatuation.
Kitty, according to Tolstoy, becomes so enamored with Anna and infatuated with her beauty and self-confidence and power, that she falls in love with Anna simultaneously with Vronsky. In Wright’s depiction, it is more like the relationship between the young girl and the older babysitter – wanting to be good friends but knowing, and keeping, a distance. The infatuation never comes across unless it is what I am mistaking for mere politeness.
At the debutante ball, Kitty is in virginal white. Her face recalls Mia Wasikowska, but with harder lines and less cheekbones. Vronsky, in white as well to match his Cupidesque looks no doubt (which we accept by now as not a joke) dances with Kitty while very poorly hiding his eyes from watching the black-clad Anna, dancing nearby with Stiva. In fact, Vronsky is so bad at concealing his enchantment that even Kitty is prompted to ask him if anything is wrong, realizing slowly that his desires linger nearby, but not with her. Meanwhile, Kitty has the very young Boris, who is probably more excited by her than anyone else there, doting on a dance which she of course obliges.
As the two begin their steps on the floor, Vronsky sidles up to Anna (who has already begun looking for him).
Dance with me.
I am not used to being spoken to like that by a man I met once at a railway station.
I dare say, but if I’m not to dance with you, I’m getting out of this operetta and going home.
Then for Kitty’s sake.
At least she had good intentions.
The dance floor freezes, not through special effects but clearly the actors are all ignoring the “couple” in stillness, recalling Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. As the two pass each couple, they suddenly come back alive one by one, as if these two hold the true flame of life – in which case they can extinguish it too. Their breathing, amped up by the separate sound, takes on an erotic shallow quivering and suddenly the floor is empty save for the two in the spotlight.
As the rest of the dance floor comes back into the light, interrupting the lovers' moment, Kitty’s worry and fearful watching, spastic with the quickness of the dance, enmeshes her own breathing with that of Anna’s and Vronsky’s. It is a triangle Kitty knows she has fallen out of, although what isn’t made so clear by the film is that Kitty, having rejected Levin thinking that Vronsky would surely propose to her, is now realizing that Vronsky may not actually propose, and that she may have lost all the eggs in her pretty princess basket.
Kitty is given her moment for a new dance with Vronsky, her face suppressing tears as they take center floor, lit from above. As she cries, the rest of the guests whisper amongst each other – they are like the Greek chorus, foreshadowing to each the gossip to come of what they’ve just witnessed between married socialite Anna and eligible young bachelor Vronsky.
Escaping from the twittering in a flutter of self-aware gasps and watering eyes, Anna goes over to a hanging mirror, where the train is barreling towards her. Then she is on the train. When it stops, she exits for some air, seeing Vronsky doing the same. She tells him, with tears, that she will forget this. But Vronsky refuses to go back to be Kitty’s. As we pull out and reveal the train traveling through the night, I can’t help but wait for the camera to pull back further still, revealing a child playing with toys – the look of the train is so false, its movements so familiar from toy trains I played with myself as a child, that it’s a bit of a joke when we leave the scene, supposedly having accepted it as a realistic “shot of the train in the night.” Hardly.
Anna visits her sleeping Seryozha in what is perhaps one of the most beautiful sets, and most tableau of settings, plain and simple, a large wooden sleigh bed nestled into the middle of the stage, with a small cove-like insert behind it, a scene of ships en voyage painted in the background. The whole cubicle is framed in ornate gold, only underlining the tableau quality; as if the “real world” were too much for her, Anna can crawl into a painting and be still for just a moment. She lightly skims her fingertips over Seryozha’s skin as he mechanically thanks her for his Moscow presents, the monotone words like a child greeting a school teacher in the morning. Anna must extract herself and go to bed for the night.
The next day Anna goes to visit Princess Elizaveta “Betsy” Tverskoy (Ruth Wilson), the only one who might be anywhere close to Anna’s willingness to disregard society rules. Betsy, however, does not get herself into gossip and trouble, perhaps because she too is of high social standing and understands the shame it would bring to her family, such as her dear and close cousin, Vronsky.
Through a series of small events with Betsy, Anna and Vronsky glance each other again and again like a dream sequence, one moment starting just when the other has ended, during which Vronsky’s youth seems to grow more and more alabaster and pristine with each costume: baby blue, blinding white. And like the young child, Vronsky’s mother is calling him to return home and leave St. Petersburg. Leave Anna. Take up the promotion offered over in Tashkent. As Vronsky tells Betsy (who has innocently caught onto him and Anna) that evening at the opera, “I’m afraid I’m becoming quite ridiculous.” Like the frat boy realizing how outlandishly useless his whole yuppie-façade is – figure yourself out quickly or you will not really reap much reward in the end.
But at Betsy’s little after-party, of which Anna had already dismissed as a favor to straight-edged religious stiff Countess Lydia Ivanova (Emily Watson), the ladies murmur of “Anna’s shadow” arriving before her – Vronsky, of course. After Betsy chides him on being desperate to persuade a married woman to leave her vows, he gets fed up with Anna’s absence and leaves. Finally Anna makes a hurried entrance at the nick of time for Betsy’s surprise: a strange display of fireworks viewed from an opening in the ceiling that causes everyone in the room to tilt back Matrix-esque. It’s an odd movement for a bizarre “surprise” that, to our 21st century eyes, holds more of a circus-opening feeling than one of great amusement.
After Anna confronts Vronsky about their budding flirtations, to which he believes he has fallen victim, she pleads him for peace and he replies that he has none to give her. We’re either all very melodramatic because of the always-apocalyptic seeming Russian winters, or passion is a self-guided beast we all carry, without mercy. Of course, Alexei Karenin has come onstage by now. “I’m not sure my nerves can stand another Alexei at this moment,” quips party-guest Lisa Merkalova (Emerald Fennell). Karenin tells Anna (in more of an announcement heard by the whole crowd) that he has come to call her home – to which she cheerfully (rather oddly) replies without a second thought that he can go on without her, she’ll be staying. Send the carriage home. As if he had asked if she wanted a sandwich and she said she was really very full already, thank you very much. Karenin, the patient government man he is, humbly agrees and leaves. Is it power or inconsiderate ignorance on Anna’s part? Regardless, she admits to Vronsky that she does not want him to leave St. Petersburg (again, power or ignorance?), and she returns home to a calm chastising by Karenin who warns her that everyone else in the world has noticed her and Vronsky’s mutual cohorts of secrecy.
I have nothing to say to you, and I’m tired.
And you have a son.
And with that she departs the room. Karenin has just pledged his love for her, his warning out of pure desire to save his cherished wife, and Anna certainly respects him to a degree and loves her son – but clearly, she does not want to have to deal with either of them, either for fear of hurting the two men of her family or fear of what it might do to her if she altered their family dynamic. She dismisses her reality with the ease of changing rooms, changing sets.
The Karenins lay down for sleep, Anna entering into the first sex sequence with Vronsky, lifted from her own bed (in memory?) in a perplexing series of events Stoppard has scripted as “SEX AS BEFORE” and “prelude to sex” as if the literary devices of chapter headings would somehow transmit themselves to viewers via film cuts. Their sex is more like a dance (between scene changes) constantly in fluid motions spot-lit in the darkness until Anna, her face upside down as she stretches out on her back, asks for forgiveness into the camera, as if from the audience. There is a sort of “don’t look at me” quality to this act, so sudden and unforeseen by those who have not read the book, and oddly interjected into the story for those of us already familiar. As they continue back into their entangled naked dance, she calls out – perhaps in joy – “Murderer!” again and again, as if it were his name, or a satisfying “Yes!” Perhaps it is – and she is only, in this vulnerable state, willing to admit to herself what she is doing: murdering her family, her social standing, her vows, her husband’s love, her future, herself.
Back at the Oblonsky house, Kitty swears off marriage altogether, calling the whole business “disgusting.” Embittered by not having had Vronsky propose to her, and feeling cheated by Anna, Kitty declares she officially hates the woman. Even Dolly, cheated over again and again by Stiva, tries to tell Kitty that love is joyous love. But at eighteen years old, she still has enough angst to disbelieve her sister.
On a pure white blanket set in the middle of a bright green area, trees sprouting up all over, Vronsky and Anna both in blinding white on the blanket, a lavishly sparse picnic laid out. The softness of the white’s flare gives it a sort of Twilight-CGI effect, especially in the “idyllic” forest setting. Frou Frou, Vronsky’s horse, chews grass in the distance, declared to be Vronsky’s only love aside from Anna.
Vronsky enjoys a drink with his men, merriment all around. His older brother, Sasha, has come to visit him, warning him against chasing after a married woman. He encourages Vronsky to enter into marriage himself, for it will actually set him free to do what he wants, knowing he has the safety and honor of marriage at home. Younger, bold still, and in the middle of a scandal, Vronsky disregards his brother, instead taking him out of the set, onto the stage, to introduce him to Frou Frou. In the spotlight, the white horse, his darling, is his Anna: loving, smooth to the touch, his to tame, his to ride, muscle to show off.
The stiff Countess Lydia hurries into Karenin's office, almost desperate for his attention, to warn him of his wife. Her conservative chastising gets her nowhere.
Forgive me, but you are too tolerant! Your wife…
Oh, is this about my wife? My wife is beyond reproach. She is, after all, my wife.
Next we find Vronsky visiting Anna in a field. It is more like a dreamscape than anything, as she turns to him and rather abruptly, context-less, tells him she is pregnant. But it is not a dream and he is overjoyed. “Now we can be together,” he says, and urges her to tell Karenin everything so they can leave. Anna, smarter and wiser, knows Alexei won’t “make a present of me,” granting a divorce for their sake. She would never be able to see Seryozha again… but she settles on Vronsky, her proclaimed happiness.
Vronsky’s big horse race arrives and Princess Betsy picks up Anna for the show, Alexei wearily saying he will arrive later. Giddy like a girl to the dance, Anna leaves. Now, given that every other scene has taken place “on the main stage” regardless of an indoors or outdoors setting, it should come as no surprise that the races happen “outdoors” upon the stage… but there is no virtual reality to the scene: the horse race is on the stage, not “outside” in a painted setting, but through the wings of the stage, crossing before the crowd only briefly as the horses fly out from stage right and over to stage left before disappearing behind the curtain again.
Vronsky suddenly crashes off stage on his white Anna, slamming into the dirt with only the real Anna’s voice shrieking his name into the void of the theater: “Alexei!” Her husband, Alexei, watches her almost with interest. Her doppelganger, Frou Frou, whose back is broken, must be shot. The editing, which must tell the story through visuals, has Vronsky shooting Anna.
In the carriage ride home, Karenin softly confronts Anna on her outspoken behavior at the races. Even Vronsky’s mother didn’t make a commotion. She responds tersely, admitting to being Vronsky’s mistress and that she fears Karenin and hates him too. The carriage jolts to a stop. Karenin grants Anna nothing but to not see Vronsky again. Young lady, you are grounded and I don’t want to hear another peep. Like an angry teen, she bursts through the door and runs out into what is immediately the mazelike gardens of their estate, disrobing her dress in the dusky light, coming upon Vronsky (who has just been in her gardens waiting? After falling from a horse and losing the race and being scandalized before even his mother?).
In bed that night, Anna, defeated of anything already, finishes her confession by declaring herself Vronsky’s wife and the mother of his unborn-yet child. The quietly disturbed Alexei puts away his plans for their evening and calmly walks out of their bedroom, Anna chasing after to pause in the doorway seeing him sitting in a chair in center stage, alone, all lights off except the glow of the floor lanterns. “What did I do to deserve this?” he asks, genuinely – of her, or of the universe, the black void in the theater?
Levin is meanwhile distraught over missing Kitty, missing marriage, missing out on all the plans he had for himself. A family was all this man ever wanted. Awakening one morning atop a haystack from his farming, he catches Kitty in a passing carriage, her quiet and youthful face like glossy dew in the morning light, the slightest smile on her lips, her face not yet hollowed out by age, society and burgeoning mature cheekbones.
Cut to Vronsky awkwardly passing Alexei as the former enters the latter’s home. This is not supposed to happen. The men ignore the instance as much as they can. Vronsky, furious about it though, charges at Anna, who bulges in an elegant dress much as Dolly had earlier. Perhaps beneath it, Keira Knightley is wearing the same faux-fetus belt. When Anna walks around, like a bird fluttering within a cage, chirping about Vronsky not loving her this, not loving her that, quick quips that have clearly been consuming her home-ridden mind, she finally enters into a round partition where she takes the center light. The baby moves, and she laughs, the calmest she has been in the scene. Vronsky merely watches her, the poor woman pulling out her last act for the pitying crowd.
Later Alexei Karenin is also furious about what is going on! Being polite and contained can only get you so far, if social elitism is your priority, but to his wife he lets loose that he will not return to his home “until divorce has driven you to the streets.” Anna will be ruined, unable to marry again (as Karenin would be the “victim” party), unable to see Seryozha, and her child with Vronsky would be considered a bastard damned without patriarchy or honor.
At the Shcherbatsky’s, a sort of family gathering, Levin confesses to having seen Kitty in the passing carriage (which seemed like such a strange coincidence, in the early dawn hours in what felt like the middle of nowhere) and she dismisses it by calling herself “silly and young” in the days they had last seen each other – “months and months ago.” It has the same quasi-ridiculous quality to it as Anna’s line about recalling being 18 again – these women still seem like the youth they long for, and to some degree it never left either of them. Stiva declares dinner as a servant presents a mysterious note on a silver platter, clearly causing some out-of-sorts anxiety for Stiva, who stammers out to find Alexei Alexandrovich, who has come to sever ties with Stiva (in the most polite of phrases) as he is giving Anna the divorce she and Vronsky had so terribly thought they desired for their best interest. Stiva, however startled he is, insists Alexei must stay for dinner – “Divorce is one thing, but dinner is quite another.”
Dinner turns out to be expectedly awkward. Love is the first topic they all try to discuss. Dolly ends up playing Anna’s previous role of interlocutor after dinner, trying to get Alexei to forgive her. He claims she is the only one he hates with all his soul. Forgiveness, then, is apparently not an option – the patience he had for her has clearly, through his short but tersely strong-voiced opinions, dissipated entirely.
Love does, however, remain on the minds of the rest of the diners as Levin and Kitty play with the alphabet blocks while everyone else pretends to mind their own business. Their game is simple, phrases spelled by acronyms, which the other must fulfill. In the novel, the meaning of their game is not made known to the reader until some time afterwards, when the lovers openly declare it. Here, Stoppard condenses it all into one moment: Levin places a vertical line reading “DNMN” (“did no mean never”) and Kitty answers with “TIDNK” (“then I did not know”); “CYFAF” (“can you forgive and forget”), “ILY” (you know that one). It’s refreshing to read their interaction immediately on the screen, but it removes the anticipation of their romance, the anxious waiting-game played by both lover and reader.
Karenin leaves the house, puts on his hat, and walks onto the main stage before a backdrop of a painted snowy city-scape. He opens one of Anna’s letters which he had forcefully broken into her private cabinet to steal (as evidence that he is the “victim” party in their divorce), reads the short love note Anna signed in her usual blue pencil (which was nice to see carried into the screen from the book, blue being a prominent color), tears it up and throws it into the air. As one might expect, the falling bits of paper become a full-on snowfall, covering the entire empty theater in which only Karenin stands, the camera having pulled back to reveal it all.
We come back to Anna's room to find her surrounded by doctors in bed. “No one knows him except me,” she mumbles, speaking quickly, sentences not pertaining to reality, Alexei Vronsky in the room, Alexei Alexandrovich on the other side. Anna calls him a saint, her famous scene of forgiveness. Her Vronsky lovechild – a daughter, Anna (or “Anya” in Stoppard’s script) – nurses in the other room as she blesses her forgiveness on Vronsky and Karenin, feeling she is near death, wishing she were near death.
Outside the room, the two men wait around, as if for a final notice from the medical team, but Karenin cuts the silence by asking Vronsky to leave, promising to send for him if Anna calls – would she not call all the time though? Or at least once she were recovered? Vronsky is the only thing that gave her life, and now as she feels she is losing it, would she prefer to not have Vronsky around to remind her of the mess she got herself into? When her new fever cools, will it lead her back into Karenin’s caring arms, he who has forgiven her too?
Regardless, Vronsky leaves and is chastised by his mother, who declares him “finished here.” Anna chops off her dark locks in bed, her context lost in the scene without the inner thoughts there to be read; it seems a dramatic move for the screen without a solid grounding. Betsy, wearing a putrid green ensemble (which seems an awful choice to visit someone who is bed-ridden) comes to visit Anna and gossip. Karenin interrupts, seeming to surprise the ladies, and Betsy leaves so that Alexei can have a private word.
Vronsky has asked to come by and give his farewell to Anna, who has told him no. Her thinking does not come off as clear, but it is no secret to a reader that she is still in love with Vronsky – both men, really, but with very different needs of both. Karenin reminds her that she had begged for his forgiveness and he gave it to her – she replies that yes, she had done that, but she had thought she would die and guess what? “Now I have to live with it,” she says. Bitterness and loathing spits from her lips as she vocalizes her wishes to see Vronsky, “but not to say goodbye.”
Karenin, upset and angry now, reminds her again about being the guilty party in their divorce and that the consequences, again, remain that she will be unable to remarry and her daughter would be illegitimate (whereas for the time being, the daughter is at least protected by Karenin’s name). Anna is thrown out of the house and is rejoined to Vronsky, alone.
Levin and his new bride enter his large and elaborate wooden home in the country, the first time as man and wife (although she has not been here before). To celebrate their union, the house has been decorated with paper snowflake chains strung throughout, illuminating both Levin and Kitty’s glittering highlights, particularly Kitty’s youthful prime, like a child in her Russian furs for dress-up. But there is a surprise for both: Levin’s brother Nikolai has taken him up on his offer of his home to recuperate, Masha there trying to nurse him. Levin does not want to offend, frighten, or repulse Kitty with anything regarding Nikolai’s state, but Kitty quickly dismisses his attitude and takes over with a genuine matriarchy, ordering the setup of a proper environment for the dying man, showing Masha how to tend to the ill body. Seeing this mature takeover by his wife instills a deeper affection for Kitty than Levin had had before – on the screen, it comes off as a sort of awe-stricken observance. Even though it is Kitty who surprises us by taking charge, the ethnic music identifies the moment with Masha.
Meanwhile, Anna writes to Karenin asking to see Seryozha for his birthday; Karenin is not surprised and seems to feel like he might oblige her request (either for her sake or Seryozha’s, perhaps both). But Countess Lydia, with all her reformative opinions for Alexei, encourages him not to blow on the embers of Anna.
Anna browses a toy shop with the kind of awe a child might have, until she spots a perfect thing – a toy horse, a white one among all the colors of the rest of the shop. Bursting into the Karenin household, Anna disregards the pleas of the servants (who are told to forbid her entry) and makes her way to Seryozha’s room. Where before we had seen it as a stage of beauty, his bed like a cocoon of safety in luxury, it now is an open room, reminiscent of an empty and dead attic. If it is supposed to reflect his sadness at missing his mother, it comes across more as if he had been kept a hostage (which, of course, he had not). Reunited at last, mother and son are joyous, he unknowing of why she is not around anymore, she vague and careful with her words, aware she cannot stay. Karenin watches them onstage. It hurts to see them so in love as much as it hurts to see her again at all.
Anna leaves, returns to her own home, ignores her crying daughter, and sits in her black veil, lace like a spider web covering her face, as if she had been in a comical coffin for some time. The light in the room seeps out screen-right, behind her head (indicating the whole day has passed) until Vronsky enters immediately from screen-left and lights a lamp, asking why she is sitting in the dark. Anna pounces on him as response – does it take all day to visit your brother, as you had said you were doing? Vronsky doesn’t want to hear it. So she makes plans to visit the theater (odd in itself in Wright’s film, considering everything is the theater) but Vronsky is hesitant to let her – people will talk. This she knows, but she is not ashamed.
In a glittering white dress, as if begging everyone to grant her a renewed light of social virginity, Anna sits with Princess Myagkaya, who tries to engage in conversation with nearby opera guests; they ignore her at the sight of Anna. On the other side of their box, a man stares at Anna with interest, as if asking her how much for the night. Everyone all around either eyes Anna with disgust and contempt, or sexual appetite.
Vronsky tries to convince others to invite Anna to social events, but even his brother and sister-in-law refuse, in order to save their own social standings, or what’s left for the Vronsky name anyhow. The couple next to Anna denounce her before the silence fallen over the rest of the crowd, recalling Marienbad once again, a spotlight on Anna’s white and heartbroken face. Betsy even encourages Vronsky to marry someone, just to solve everything for himself, such as the lovely Princess Sorokina (supermodel Cara Delevingne) whom his mother has been actively trying to get him to pursue throughout, much to Anna’s frustration and jealousy.
Vronsky ends up taking the blame for Anna’s humiliation. They seem tired already, like a married couple exhausted by one another but appeasing each nonetheless. In Tolstoy’s novel, Vronsky and Anna have a much more tumultuous love affair, frustration seeping into almost every passionate moment, or spawning from it. The depth of their doting and overall relationship is not fully conveyed through the silver screen – it comes off as flat, rapid, and shallow. An affair that ruined everything, but quickly and flakily.
Anna sits alone dressed in shining white (again, trying for redemption?) among the rest of the room’s women dressed in shades of silver and beige. She is about to leave, brought to tears by the gossiping looks and whispers of the ladies around her, when suddenly Dolly sits down out of the blue (pun intended). She cheerfully claims she wishes she would have done what Anna had, but that no one asked her to. Stiva is the same as always, she says, perhaps indicating his lust after a dancer or other new pretty figure. Clearly, men want two things: safety on the one hand and lust on the other.
Back in Anna and Vronsky’s blue fabric-walled chamber, they are trapped in a strange and bizarre world. Her hair is messy and lazy looking compared to her pristine white dress, Vronsky in white as well, as if they are always in denial of their situation. She is asleep on the floor in her undergarments, her hoop skirt, and suddenly it seems as if we have been taken into a dream.
Anna gets up and goes to the window, where down below she watches Vronsky meet Princess Sorokina, dressed in white with white horses atop the hardwood floors of the theater stage, no attempt by the set to hide the fact that they are not in a real street. There is the feeling, as we look down on them from Anna’s point of view, that everyone is not just on a stage, but is a puppet – rather than an actor – in the show.
Distraught, Anna walks away and, suddenly clutching her gut, sits herself down onto a bench which quickly transforms her surrounding to that of a train car as she pulls back the blue curtain of the adjacent window. Looking out the window, of the speeding train, Vronsky on the mind, Anna has visions of him and Princess Sorokina making love in the shadowy reflection.
When she exits the train, she is back in the rafters of the theater, this time being the location of the station. The well-dressed people are all frozen on the stage as they wait for the coming train (despite Anna having just gotten off one). The visions, or flashbacks, one could say, of the speeding train that have haunted Anna throughout the film, seem to inspire her in this moment to get up from a bench, her eyes watering.
Everyone is still frozen, her red dress trembles like blood to be shed. She walks to the edge of the platform. The train is coming – it passes her. And then, somehow, as it continues to pass her, she manages to throw herself beneath, screaming “Please forgive me!” between wheels, the next one coming quickly crushing her back with a too-loud-to-be-believable cracking of her back – cut to Vronsky in their blue room, looking up as if hearing the crushing – cut back to Anna on the tracks, now frozen like all the rest, but in death, not in pausing. A near-perfect line of blood is smattered across her half-lit face. Her hair has come down from its 'do somehow and almost looks prettily poised about her head on the snowy ground.
Wild flowers and tall grasses fill the entire space, a sky above two children playing – a bit-older Seryozha with his little sister Anya. From a chair a little way’s off, Alexei Karenin watches the children as he reads a book. Then what once was the wide-open countryside is revealed, through a pull-back of the camera, to be within the theater boundaries (of course), the Karenins on the main stage.
The back of the proscenium is opened up to let more field flow out past Karenin, as if out into “the real world.” The doors of the opened wall are wood, raw, like the back of barn doors. We may be backstage. We may never be leaving the theater.
But we are at the end.
"On Top of the World" - Imagine Dragons (mp3)
"Ho Hey" - The Lumineers (mp3)