The latest cinematic incarnation of Leo Tolstoy's cautionary tale about adultery stars Keira Knightley in the title role as a woman who sacrifices everything to sustain an increasingly damaging affair.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy penned those somber words, the first sentence of his novel Anna Karenina, in 1873. Nearly a century and a half later, Tolstoy's stern morality tale about the destructive nature of adultery has migrated (again) to the big screen. And it (again) unpacks the profound unhappiness that unfolds in the wake of its title character's determination to embrace forbidden love at any cost.
It all begins when Anna travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Her purpose? To convince her sister-in-law, Dolly, not to divorce her brother, a man named Oblonsky. He's not been faithful to her, but Anna pleads with Dolly, "Is there enough love left in your heart to forgive him?"
Ironically, Anna's attempt to rescue one marriage proves the undoing of her own. In Moscow, she meets a man who's wooing another young friend of Anna's named Kitty. But when Anna's eyes meet those of the fiery young Count Vronsky, all other considerations vanish. And her halfhearted attempts to resist him quickly collapse.
The first collateral damage of the affair is Kitty, who had rejected another worthy suitor named Levin because she'd hoped Vronksy was on the verge of proposal. Levin, an earnest, hardworking farmer, retreats to his fields to lick his wounds and vows never to marry … as does Kitty after Vronsky and Anna become the gossipy talk of aristocratic Russian society.
Anna's marriage to her husband, Karenin, is the next casualty. Despite gossip and clear signs that his wife has gone astray, the stalwart Russian refuses to believe that Anna could be cheating on him—until she confesses it directly. He refuses, then, to grant her a divorce, the one key that could potentially free her to live with her lover.
The final casualty, of course, is Anna herself.
Anna's life, her choices and their consequences offer a textbook cautionary tale. And while we're invited to sympathize with her—she's a passionate woman who feels trapped in a passionless marriage—the story ultimately doesn't side with her.
Anna's affair with Vronsky, first emotionally and then sexually, is painted in unequivocal terms. After they've consummated their relationship, Anna says simply, "I'm damned." She says so because she still, if only in her heart, clings to a view of marriage as a covenant established by God, and she knows she has chosen something sinful. In this, the film represents adultery not as something that fulfills its participants, but as something that destroys their souls.
For his part, Karenin tries to do his best as a cuckolded husband. Duty, not passion, drives him. At first he chooses to believe the best of his wife, that she couldn't possibly be making the choices he suspects she's making. When it's clear that she is, however, he urges her (commands her) to not see her lover again.
He is angry with her. And he says he hates her. But those emotions are eventually replaced with forgiveness. Karenin believes deeply in the sanctity of marriage, and that conviction keeps him from granting his wife a divorce. Some will see that doggedness as him cruelly holding Anna hostage. But Karenin argues, among other things, that by granting Anna a divorce, her illegitimate daughter (by Vronsky) would lose the protection that Karenin's good name affords her. And, indeed, Karenin is portrayed as a responsible father, showing care for his own son, Serhoza, as well as Anna's daughter, who is not his.
Speaking of Serhoza, perhaps Anna's most endearing quality is her deep love for him, demonstrated by both actions and attitude.
Dolly does ultimately find the strength to forgive her husband. And when he refuses to halt his philandering ways, she willfully shifts her emotional energies to her children. To its further credit, the film never suggests that this is a good or healthy situation, choosing again to concentrate on the damage done by dirty deeds. One scene shows Oblonksy standing alone and staring blankly as Dolly plays with the children in the background; it's clear he's not been fulfilled or made happy by his adulterous choices.
In contrast to those woe-filled tales, we also have the story of Levin and Kitty. Due to her infatuation with Vronsky, Kitty initially rejects Levin's offer of marriage. Eventually, though, they do get married. It's clear that Levin has a high view of both love and marriage, and that he hopes and plans to tenderly care for his wife (and the child they have together). Their story offers an idealistic vision of what marriage and love can and should look like.
The influences of the church and of Christianity are evident in the way nearly everyone responds to Anna's affair with Vronsky. Karenin represents the common view when he describes marriage as being "bound together by God." He also says of Oblonsky's indiscretions, "Sin has a price." Accordingly, breaking the marriage vow is, he says, "a crime against God." To get remarried after divorce is unthinkable. When Anna asks for a divorce, Karenin tells her, "It would be a sin to help you destroy yourself."
When it looks as though Anna is on death's door during an illness, she calls for Karenin and asks for his forgiveness. He grants it. And he also says he forgives Vronsky. The result of that for him? "My soul is filled with joy," he says. We see him reading the Bible.
A countess invites Anna to hear a message from Christian missionaries. Anna blurts out a prayer of desperation at one point: "Forgive me." She carries a locket that has a picture of her son on one side and iconic images of Mary and Jesus on the other. A man talks sincerely about the "the grace of God."
Levin, for his part, says, "I believe in reason," referring to sin in ethical terms instead of spiritual ones. About adultery he says, "An impure love is not love." He goes on to say that "sensual desire for its own sake" is no different than greed or gluttony.
Anna and Vronsky's attraction smolders for half the movie—the fire fanned by a very sensual dance together at a ball—before Anna's will gives way and they consummate their affair. Close-up camera shots then show Vronsky's bare torso, Anna's shoulders and the pair's ecstatic faces amid explicit sexual movements. Several other similarly passionate scenes likewise depict sexual movements without explicit nudity. One embrace-filled sequence involves Anna kissing Vronsky and licking his lips and moustache. The morning after a tryst, the camera shows him lying naked on his side next to Anna, who's under the covers. (His leg, thigh, backside and torso are seen.) Anna's bare back gets screen time in another encounter.
It's hinted that Vronsky is a serial womanizer who frequently beds young women who hope to become his wife. And Oblonsky admits to having cheated on Dolly repeatedly, saying he simply can't control himself. Levin's brother, Nikolai, treats a woman who was once a prostitute as if she's his wife (including living together).
Anna is shown in a corset. Women's dresses reveal cleavage. A woman at an opera calls Anna a "slut."
When a train unexpectedly lurches forward, a soot-covered worker falls beneath it and gets cut in half. We see his graphically dissected body and bloody entrails.
[Spoiler Warning] That serves as foreshadowing for Anna's death. She commits suicide by throwing herself off a train platform, after which she, too, gets run over. We see her blood-spattered face, with a series of red droplets being made to look like tears.
In a horse race, Vronsky's steed stumbles and falls. Its back is broken, and Vronksy is forced to shoot it. We see him aim the gun and hear the shot.
Crude or Profane Language
Two uses of "d‑‑n." Three misuses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol (generally vodka) is consumed by most of the adults in the film at various social gatherings. Vronsky and a group of fellow soldiers get rambunctious and appear to be drunk at a party. A number of characters (including Vronsky and Anna) smoke cigarettes. Anna eventually develops a dependency on morphine, which she begins to use as a tranquilizer.
Other Negative Elements
By the end, Dolly is one of the few people still willing to associate with Anna or have anything to do with her—which is to her credit. Less admirable is her admission that she esteems Anna's selfish choices. Anna asks Dolly, "Don't you disapprove of me for what I've done?" Dolly responds, "No. I would have done the same. But no one's asked me." Then she says she's not sure she would have been as "brave" as Anna.
Russian literature from the 19th century has a reputation for being dense and complex. But at its core, Anna Karenina is a straightforward, simple story: A passionate, sensual woman abandons her marriage to a staid, stable man in exchange for a torrid, years-long affair with a younger interloper.
Still, Tolstoy had more in mind here than simply dishing the details of an aristocrat's adulterous relationship with an opportunistic playboy. Instead, he uses Anna's temptation—and her eventual headlong plunge into sin—as a narrative foil to unpack cultural expectations about love and sex, marriage and faithfulness.
In some ways, Anna is a sympathetic character, and we're meant to have empathy for her. Her husband is as reserved and stoic as she is passionate, and it's not hard to see how their union would have been a hard one. "Each successive generation views Anna from the context of their time," says director Joe Wright. "She has been held up as a martyr and a heroine, especially in the 1970s and '80s. For us, she's human, she's flawed, and she's self-will run riot. She is complicated, and that is vital. Tolstoy applauds the breaking of the social rules. But I think he sees a spiritual purpose to marriage, and Anna breaks that bond."
Indeed, Tolstoy never justifies his antiheroine's self-absorbed, self-destructive choices. And Wright (The Soloist, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) unflinchingly depicts the horrible price Anna must pay for clinging to her relationship with Vronsky.
Note that the unflinching part of those depictions involves sexual scenes and brief but grim violence. But unlike contemporary romances that might use a fate like Anna's to justify divorce (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen offers but one of many recent examples), Anna Karenina rightfully suggests that giving in to the impulse to embrace forbidden love will ultimately yield nothing but devastation.