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Two lovers lie in blooming grass and sunlight, in the springtime of their adulterous affair. It is hours before nightfall, before the violent grasping for fig leaves. But still the twinge of conscience comes: “Someone might be watching.” And with those words, they look up to the boughs of swaying trees, suddenly aware of that Someone, unseen, in the rushing wind.
Since its conception in the 1870s, Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina has stood as one of the world’s foremost displays of that biblical truth: “The wages of sin is death.” Thankfully, in his interpretation, director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) maintains much of the book’s theological orientation. Set amidst the backdrop of Imperial Russia, Anna Karenina (Kiera Knightly) is the focus of the film, as she wrestles with the emptiness of her marriage to Karenin (Jude Law) and finally succumbs to the pursuits of a young military officer, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Though stolen waters are sweet, Anna’s husband reminds her, “sin has a price,” for a husband and wife are “bound together by God, and this can only be broken by a crime against God.”
Yet like the book, this is no simple morality tale. Adapted to the screen by Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead), the film draws much of its artistry from one conceit: It plays out almost entirely from a Victorian-era stage much like St. Petersburg’s Marinsky Theater. With layer upon layer of texture and color, the story unfolds like a Russian nesting doll, each scene pulled back to reveal the next in a visual feast. Eventually, however, it earns its R rating (for nudity) during a bedroom scene. From that point on, witnessing Anna’s demise is a chore. Little is left beyond artifice for her or the viewer, and more redemptive storylines languish in the background.
There is enough of Tolstoy’s vision here to be both entertaining and instructive. But such an appetizing production, drawing on viewers’ taste for the forbidden, may in the end glorify what Tolstoy set out to decry: passion without the restraints of Love.