I recently re-watched the movie Anna Karenina. It was about Anna Karenina, the wife of a Russian imperial minister who creates a high-society scandal by having an affair with Count Vronsky, a dashing cavalry officer in 19th-century St. Petersburg. Anna’s husband, Alexei, offers her a difficult choice: Go into exile with Vronsky but never see her young son again, or remain with her family and abide by the rules of discretion.
The director Joe Wright, uses an interesting type of graphic cinematographic technique as he recreates a majority of the scenes in Anna Karenina on a stage to signify the facade that Anna and the rest of the elite Russian society maintain. Anna Karenina is based in mid-1860’s Russia during the rise of realism and foreshadowed the introduction of communism that would later take place in 1917 after World War I. Though communism wasn’t present at all in the novel as it would come to Russia after World War I, what Leo Tolstoy shows is the complete difference in lifestyle of the elite and the poor. It is interesting to note that Anna Karenina is set during the years 1852 to 63 during which period there was an Emancipation Reform where the Russian Tzar, Alexander issued a manifesto emancipating the serfs (an agricultural labourer bound by the feudal system) as there was constant rebellion against the feudal Russian society. Leo Tolstoy himself was an aristocrat. However, after experiencing a profound moral crisis and spiritual awakening in 1870, he realized that the message he was being taught in the Orthodox Russian Church was different from what Jesus truly intended in the Bible. This is what led him to write Anna Karenina as he realized that a true Christian could find lasting happiness by striving for inner self-perfection which happens in seclusion, away from the Church. This kind of epiphany, which is closely reflected in Levin’s character, made him come to the realization that there should not be class division in Russian society.
Joe Wright portrays Tolstoy’s aim to suppress social division by depicting the story through the eyes of the elite. The aristocrats’ stories are portrayed on a stage to represent their lifestyle in a highly stylized and is made beautiful until it seems artificial. Whereas the poor are portrayed to be shown living underneath the stage sets, out of the vision of society. It is almost as if society did not acknowledge the existence of the poor. In one of the opening scenes, Princess Kitty Shcherbatsky is portrayed to be sitting on the stage wearing a white dress with flowers in her hair. She is sitting amidst clouds and represented as an angel from the heavens. Kitty needs to represent that she is innocent and virginal, thus making her the perfect and ideal woman of that time in Levin’s eyes. On a similar note, Oblongsky (Stiva), Anna’s brother is introduced as the stereotypical Russian elite as he is seen walking into his office as his clerks were helping him take his cloak and hat off. The scene is almost like a burlesque as the workers are rapidly stamping papers. In the scene, Oblongsky says, “The heart of Russia today is nothing but paperwork” referring to the artificial Russian society. Another important scene that is shown as a stage play is when Alexei Vronksry (Anna’s lover) loses a horse race and ends up shooting his favourite horse. Vronsky shoots his own horse as his pride is dismantled in front of society which causes Anna to realize how much Vronky values his social pride.
In contrast, Joe Wright depicts the story of the poor people who have been ignored by the Russian upper class by portraying them in scenes which are distinctly darker and realistic. An example would be the scene where the railway worker at the train station was run over by the train while checking the wheels of the compartments. At that point, if Anna had not mentioned how awful the scene was, Vronksky would not have given the other railway workers money to dispose off his body. Similarly, in the scene where Levin’s brother Nicolai is introduced and shown to be on the verge of death and is represented to be under the sets of the stage in the dark. Nicolai is as an idealist who has lost faith in his ideals and drinks away his sorrow. It is almost as though he is being held a prisoner, so that the nonidealists could keep track of his movements and prevent him from spreading his views.
Against this setting of a clearly divided society, are the three characters, Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin and (Dolly) Darya Oblonsky who are looking for the real meaning of life. The three characters could be perceived to be reflections of each other in carrying forward the theme of reality. Dolly attempts to break away from her marriage with Oblongsky due to his infidelity. However, she is unable to as she is a woman and has no status in society without the name of her husband as the Russian Orthodox Church would not accept a divorced woman. In a different version of the same story, Anna Karenina breaks away from her unsatisfying marriage and into the arms of her lover (Vronsky), succeeding to a large extent with her rebellion as she was intelligent and strong-headed enough to understand her needs. However, eventually, her plan backfired as she was ostracized by society. In contrast to both the women, Levin’s character finds his reality after being rejected by Kitty the first time. He decides to abandon urban society and begins to work at his family home in the countryside with the serfs that his father used to own. During this time Levin find his faith in God in a spiritual awakening like Tolstoy which leads him to set the serfs free and confront Kitty once again near the end of the movie. In a comparison of all the three characters, Levin finds the most satisfaction in his life as he is a rich man and society would look at him with tolerance no matter his actions. Additionally, unlike Anna and Dolly who are unable to find happiness in the realities they are seeking, Levin’s reality is based on his faith and his real understanding of the real God. This ensures he can build a life of sustained happiness.