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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Focus Features

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.

While the film revels in these caricatures of opulence, it also uncovers its costs. Those concerns are built into its very conceit, which requires characters to bustle through the theater unaware that they're confined within its crumbling walls—a neat metaphor for the upper class's blithe superficiality. When the sated Oblonsky returns from lunch, it's to the prop closet of the theater complex, where his family nests among the bric-a-brac. It's only then that we discover he's not as solvent as his appetite requires. Wright lifts the curtain on these backstage warrens to show the rickety framework holding up such an unequal society. Aristocrats glide from one gilt salon to the next, but peasants swarm in the crawlspaces; as Tolstoy may only have guessed but the rest of us know, the empire is waning, and the most vulnerable are those who have the most to lose.

Levin is perhaps the only exception among them: always modest, uncomfortable, and underdressed inside Moscow's city limits while courting Kitty. He's more at home in the heartland, where Wright ventures from his world of pulleys and plaster to the expansive Russian steppe (or Salisbury Plain, its handy stand-in). It's not long before Levin is scything the fields with the muzhiks. His friends and servants laugh at this impulse, but we're asked to sympathize with Levin's rustic search for authenticity. Both candidates asked something similar of voters when they spurned their neckties, rolled their sleeves, and strode through the small towns of the American interior, harvesting homespun anecdotes for televised recitation. The idea that there's a fundamental divide between the country's urban coasts and open middle is cliché, but it appears to have a legitimate claim on our political imagination.

So it can be a little exasperating to find Anna Karenina indulging in some of the same hackery as the campaigns. When the day's reaping is done, Levin listens to one of his former serfs reflect on his son's shaky job prospects after being emancipated; he could almost be a steel-mill worker after a Bain buyout. There's even a dying consumptive (Levin's errant brother) who's trotted out to cough up a few bitter words about the coming revolution. All more or less desultory, these capsules of proletarian history are as brief and to-the-point as any PAC ad, and as soon as they're delivered the movie resumes its regular programming.

Which, of course, is all about Anna. As she and her husband argue over their children's legitimacy and the possibility of divorcing, their 19th-century marital squabble recalls our own battles over family politics. That Karenin is the embodiment of imperial bureaucracy only furthers this impression. He speaks in a minister's firm but measured pronouncements, each one delineating a new obstacle to his wife's freedom. After our own decades of cultural warfare over the place of women in and out of the home, Knightley's indignant grimace will be all too recognizable. Before long, a clenched jaw is all she has left, and as the prohibitions of the state grow sharper, so does the tone of public comment.

For our own imperfect union, that will be familiar, too. Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but Anna Karenina reminds us their bickering members sound alike in any language, time, or place.