To get evaluation out of the way, I’ll say I liked it. Of course I liked it! It was more or less an entertainment, a revel for the bookish. Target audience: Rory Gilmore. Who can resist!
There are really two twists to Anna Karenina.
First is Joe Wright’s conceit of aristocratic social life as theater. The more I think about this, the more I like it. I always wish filmmakers would find more properly cinematic, or at least visual/aural, equivalents for the stylistic and thematic aspects of the literary texts they adapt (this was an artistically costly thing to neglect in Cloud Atlas, for instance). And Wright, by using a cinematic technique (blatant artifice, laying bare the device) directly opposite to Tolstoy’s literary technique (blinding transparency), manages to convey Tolstoy’s meaning, his Rousseauist contempt for the spiritless masquerade that is High Society.
The second twist, I suspect, belongs more to Tom Stoppard, and that is the film’s exaggerated respect for Karenin. Not only do they cast a charismatic, attractive actor in the role, they go so far as to have Karenin preside over Wright’s ingenious concluding image: the theater, with which the movie began, now overrun with wild grass, Tolstoyan naturalism not deigning to take the stage, but reclaiming it for the soil.
But Karenin does not stand for this; he is the farthest thing from nature. The moral of the story is absolutely not the cuckold’s victory over harlotry and lies. Tolstoy was not a conservative, though this film might lead you to believe otherwise (nor was he a liberal, as some complained when they objected to the trailer’s “slut-shaming,” bizarrely imagining that blunt slogans derived from contemporary social activism are helpful in understanding complex works of art or periods of history [I know Tumblr thinks they are, but they are not]). A conservative Anna Karenina is interesting as far as it goes (revenge, maybe, for Patricia Rozema’s post-colonial Mansfield Park?), but it remains more Gilmore Girls than Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was a Christian anarchist, an antinomian. His utopia was an organic society bonded by love in which each knew his or her place and worked for the good of all. The film’s last image of equalizing nature triumphant belongs to Tolstoy’s surrogate, Levin, who reaps alongside his laborers, who lives simply and loves his wife, whose wife does her work as he does his. There are English and American equivalents in the canon (Ruskin, Thoreau) and, actually, many of the “social justice” types today are in line with this vision, though they mix it with an incongruous sex/gender radicalism that is probably endemic to consumer capitalism and thus cannot co-exist with any kind of communitarianism at all.
Tolstoy’s philosophy is compelling in its severe way, but no great artist can believe it or any other kind of social meliorism or immanent redemption narrative—and Tolstoy was a great artist. A great artist knows that Anna is a higher soul than her husband or her lover because she is more than a sensualist. She is a kind of lost Platonist, wandering among the shadows, trying to find her way to the divine through sense. Fucking her way to God. She—not Karenin or Vronsky—is equal to Levin, and to Tolstoy, because she is on the right quest. She takes the wrong step in the right direction. Hence, High Society has no right to judge her: they do not even know there is a quest to be misled upon. And that is moreover why she is tragic, one of the greatest tragic heroines. But Stoppard’s script misses the mark, landing somewhere between pathos and sarcasm when pity and terror are wanted.
Anyway, a very good movie. One of the best all year. Though I think I still rate Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Lorene Scafaria’s undervalued Seeking a Friend for the End of the World more highly. They, funnily enough, are more authentically Tolstoyan.