The Weirdly Familiar Politics of 'Anna Karenina'

Less than two weeks after Election Day, it's easy to watch Joe Wright's new Tolstoy adaptation and be reminded of present-day issues of class and campaigns.

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Of the two historical dramas to hit movie theaters since election night, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is more likely to be talked about in relation to this year's campaign season. But Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley, is also a story about a house divided. Set inside a sumptuously decaying theater, the world of Tolstoy's heroine can sometimes resemble our own, where life's material dilemmas—about money, marriage, family, and the government's role in each—converge around personal passions and catastrophes. Those issues are still unsettled as the Obama era heads into its second act, and for anyone with politics on the mind, Anna Karenina will be less of a distraction from reality than a reminder of it.

Wright's is the 12th feature-length film to adapt the classic Russian novel, which tells of the romance and ensuing scandal between Anna, wife to the icy middle-aged statesman Karenin (Jude Law), and a rakish young officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Tom Stoppard, who wrote the movie's brisk screenplay, sees the story's broad treatment of love as the source of its endurance: "There is love, mother love, baby love, sibling love, carnal love, love of Russia, and so forth. The word 'love' is central to the book, and to our movie."

By widening their focus, the filmmakers do a credit to Tolstoy's sprawling work, most of all by returning attention to the narrative that complements the Karenina-Vronsky affair: the modest squire Levin (Domhnall Gleeson)'s pursuit of Kitty Oblonsky (Alicia Vikander), Anna's petulant young niece. Knightley's Anna Karenina is a fiercely affectionate mother whom the stirrings of extramarital desire take unaware. In the meantime Kitty, after spurning Levin's advances, undergoes a late blossoming of affection, not only for him but for the people around her. As she rises above her teenage narcissism, Anna sinks into her passion until it overcomes her.

These plotlines run parallel to each other, but you could imagine them as running against each other, too. Together, the two couples offer competing visions not only of love—one transgressive, the other conventional—but of morality in private life. As their paths diverge, it becomes clear which pair will come out on top and which one won't. After a presidential campaign as long and tedious as any Russian novel, that opposition (and its dramatic stakes) could hardly be more familiar. Stoppard insists that in transferring these love stories to the screen he set aside "those parts of the novel that might be about something else." But even with the focus on the personal, the political remains in the frame.

Readers of Anna Karenina will recall the famous lunch of Count Oblonsky, Anna's hedonist brother, whose eyes glisten like the tray of oysters he polishes off early in the novel. When Matthew Macfadyen, playing the devilishly charming philanderer, sits down to enjoy this same meal, there's no sign of indulgence or class guilt on his face: Why shouldn't there be oysters? It's the kind of moment that recalls the times during the campaign when Romney appeared vexed as to why he should have to explain that people earning more than $250,000 a year shouldn't pay higher rates on their incomes. The entitlement of the rich, Oblonsky reminds us, is old indeed.

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Rich Bellis is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. His music reviews have appeared in BUST.

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