Anna Karenina (2012)

It is a good sequence, Anna Karenina read-along then the movie after. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard wrote as if his viewers already knew the story well, or have seen other film versions, for here, we are watching a highly stylized adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel, and it seems that it is a case of style over story.

Anna Karenina Poster

Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) version is a bold and therefore risky direction. Instead of a realistic rendering of Tolstoy’s epic, Wright offers us a new portal into the story of Anna Karenina. All the world’s a stage, and if anything, the highly reverberated gossip of Petersburg, the adulterous affair of Anna, wife of the respected government official Alexei Karenin with Count Vronsky is aptly rendered a spectacle. Wright’s innovative concept is an interesting take, weaving his characters between the front and the backstage and into the ‘real’ set.

The idea is brilliant, the permeability of actors in and out of limelight, mingling between their own realities, and the idea that all the world’s a stage, one is both an actor and a spectator.

However, the major premise of the cinema is make-believe. It is the ‘realness’, the believability of the characters and their predicaments that arouse our empathy. That happens when we emotionally immerse into the film. As a result, we care for the characters, even though we may not identify with them.

But here while watching this film, I experience a kind of cognitive dissonance. With its setting in the theatre, at the front and backstage, it is like a kind of deconstruction if you will, for we see that these are merely actors acting, and not ‘real’. So as a viewer, I’m just like a fly on the wall, observing how a theatrical production is done. As a result, I find myself detached and aloof.

A consequence of the highly stylized gestures and movements is that they lead to overacting. And with that, believability is compromised. Now, by genre this is not a musical, so, when seeing characters walk like they’re dancing or their actions performed in unison, like the public servants rubber-stamping paper works, the effect is comical. Well, it might be the intended effect, but one that sticks out in a contrived way. The harvesting scene with the workers swinging their scythe at the same time (do they actually do that in real life, for morale?) is another example, makes me think of how natural the harvesting scenes are in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

For some reasons, far from Anna Karenina, I have Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in my mind as an example of a successful stylized and yet captivating film.

Nevertheless, there are many admirable elements in the film. First the sumptuous set design and costumes. The continuous camera work from scene to scene is interesting to watch. But after a while, I feel like I need a breather. Thanks to the external shots, albeit few and far between, I can get a gulp of fresh air.

And I must mention a couple of impressive scenes. First is at the beginning, the opening ball where Kitty sees Anna dancing with Vronsky. That scene is well done in its dramatic effects. I can see the actors’ inner turmoils exposed believably, and for a rare moment, Anna’s conscience at work.

Another one is the horse race. It is interesting to see a horse race in a theatrical setting, like an indoor corral. Putting the horse race in a theatre does not seem to work for me at first, but Wright has handled it effectively… Vronsky’s falling, Anna’s outburst, the shooting of the back-broken horse is one of the few captivating moments in the film.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson

As for the casting, I’m afraid it looks like there is a bit of a miscast for one. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is believable as a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, but here in his blond curls and starched white uniform, he looks more like a truant school boy than the military rising star Vronsky.

Keira Knightly’s poise and costume give an apt portrayal of Anna. But sometimes her facial expressions make her look like a rebellious teenager, fighting house rules and ennui.

The one role I enjoy most is Matthew MacFadyen’s Oblonsky. My opinion might differ with many. I think he is a much more convincing Oblonsky here than Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (2005), another Wright’s production. Jude Law’s character is also well-portrayed as Anna’s restrained husband Karenin the government bureaucrat.

Good to see two of Downton Abbey’s actors in the film, Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley) as Princess Myagkaya and for a brief minute Thomas Howes (Footman William) as Yashvin.

While the love affair between Anna and Vronsky leaves me quite detached, I do see love in others. I see it in Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) quiet yearning for Kitty (Alicia Vikander). I see it too in Kitty’s selfless caring for Levin’s ailing brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), and at the end I see it in Anna’s son Serhoza’s (Oskar McNamara) endearing concern for his toddler half-sister, and I see it in his father Karenin’s slight contented smile looking at his son care for Anna’s child with Vronsky.

And with that scene the film ends. All in all, the production is a brave new look at an old story. It can well lead to more readers trying to discover all the left-out conversations and story lines. And so be it, a worthy attempt to turn viewers back to the book.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


CLICK HERE to read my posts of Anna Karenina read-along.

Anna Karenina Read-Along Parts 5 – 8… And The Curtain Falls

Funny, writing a post on this last part to wrap up our Read-Along is much harder than I first thought. Where do I begin?

Here are just some thoughts.

Tolstoy the Psychoanalyst… and More

First, this is not just one story but several, and not just appreciating a 19th C. writer in distant Russia, but this is Tolstoy the master storyteller. I’m amazed at his craft. What a sharp observer of human nature, the incisive psychoanalyst decades before Freud, not only piercing into the minds of women and of men, but our canine pals as well. Tolstoy the dog whisperer. Why, the hunting scene in Part Six is a unique exploration into the cognitive dissonance of Levin’s four-legged hunting partner Laska. And Tolstoy has amusingly shown us why dogs are man’s best friend. They know their master’s shortcomings, yet still remain faithful.

Tolstoy the Late-Night Show Host

And then there’s the humor. I was surprised from the start that Tolstoy’s style is so light and sometimes even deadpan. The best quotes comes from the minor characters. Here’s one from Yashvin, Vronsky’s friend from the military, condensing the 800 plus pages in a nutshell:

 ‘A  wife’s a worry, a non-wife’s even worse,’ thought Yashvin… (p. 544)

Tolstoy can make one superb late-night show host. Listen to this:

A man can spend several hours sitting cross-legged in the same position if he knows that nothing prevents him from changing it; but if he knows that he has to sit with his legs crossed like that, he will get cramps… (p. 528)

That was what Vronsky feels with regard to society. And we know Vronsky gets more than just leg cramps.

Tolstoy the humorist? Or realist? Even the most casual remarks could bring me a smile of agreement. Like here, responding to Vronsky’s urge to go out for a walk, Oblonsky has aptly voiced out my sentiment:

 ‘If only it was possible to stay lying down and still go,’ Oblonsky answered, stretching. ‘It’s wonderful to be lying down.’ (p. 589)

All the World’s a Stage

Mariinsky Theatre, preeminent venue for music and ballet in 19th C. Russia

And then there are the spectacles. Society’s a stage where people are actors and spectators all at the same time. Tolstoy throws in many scenes reminding us that. When Anna and Vronsky come back to Petersburg, they appear separately in public at the theatre, something that Vronsky insists and Anna is indignant about. Vronsky seems to favour the spectator role, searching out people through his opera-glasses. In contrast, Anna would rather be the actor, bravely ignoring reverberations, be on centre stage. From his glasses, Vronsky saw Anna’s head, “proud, strikingly beautiful, and smiling in its frame of lace.” But now that he has her the mystery vanishes. Her beauty, though still entices, begins to ‘offend’ (p. 546).

Anna, oh Anna…

If Anna could have detached more and emoted less… Of course, she has never expected how fickle love can be, or that passion is so short-lived or changeable due to varying circumstances, or that too much of it could smother and delude. Ironically, she does look before she leaps. If only she has used her rationale for better judgement rather than calculating when the middle between two train cars will come, all for satisfying her own delusional revenge on Vronksy.

Further, which should have been no surprise to her, that marriage has ties that linger even after intimacy ends. Anna does not choose Vronsky over her husband, but Vronsky over her son, the two loves of her life. She has chosen romance over motherhood. If I’m being a tad bit unsympathetic, maybe that’s Tolstoy’s doing.

What’s surprising to me is that Tolstoy is quite matter-of-fact about Anna’s predicament. His description of Anna’s tragic demise is just one paragraph, and after that, no more mention of her. Following that comes Part 8, wrapping up the whole book with the limelight on Levin. Quite puzzling really since the book is her namesake.

Levin … Tolstoy?

At the end, is Tolstoy offering a contrast to Anna’s tragic end by detailing Levin’s spiritual awakening? The master storyteller certainly doesn’t shy away from issues which would be considered sensitive subjects and even taboos today, like God, religion, spirituality and morality. So in the book entitled Anna Karenina, Levin has the last word. Umm… which leads to a speculation that Tolstoy might have ‘an agenda’ behind his writing. Is he proselytizing?

More and more these days, I’m seeing people getting edgy about others presenting the case for faith, especially taking offence when it comes to Christianity. Nobody would squirm a bit if suddenly one day you declare you’ve become a Zoroastrian. Mind you, Tolstoy’s handling of Levin’s conversion is reasonably and philosophically grounded, albeit that sudden spark of epiphany is too overwhelming and spontaneous to be rationalized.

And all is within context of the story. Levin, having exceedingly gratified by marital bliss, by the pure love of an angelic woman in Kitty, and witnessed the miracle of life in seeing the birth of his son, has opened unreservedly his heart and soul towards God. We can read it as it is, a convincing turn for a character who has consistently been authentic and genuine in his search for meaning.

If we take offence to this ending, suspecting a hidden agenda from Tolstoy, then we could well shed similar sentiments towards other writers whose faith, convictions, or philosophical viewpoints are presented overtly or seeped through silently in their works. Would we be equally alarmed or offended when we read, for example, Thomas Hardy with his naturalism, Camus and Sartre their existentialism, Graham Greene his Catholicism, Isaac Bashevis Singer his Judaism, Somerset Maugham his Buddhism, and for that matter, Salman Rushdie his atheism? There’s no neutral writing, is there? Every writer breathes into his writing that which stems from his or her own personal world view and hopefully authentic self.

Funny too how Tolstoy in his time could so freely describe Levin’s spiritual awakening and explicitly write about the argumentations for the Christian faith in a literary work. Just makes me think that there might be more freedom of expression in days past than in today’s society.


So here we are, at the end of another Read-Along. Thanks to those who has participated in reading these 800 plus pages with me. To all who have stopped by the pond and thrown in a pebble or two, I’ve appreciated the ripples. To those who are just curious onlookers, your visits mean no less. It’s been a fun ride. Hopefully we’ll do another one in 2013. Will you join us then?

And now, to the movie…


Do go and visit these other Read-Along participants and join in the discussion there:

Janell of An Everyday Life

Bellezza of Dolce Belleza 

Care’s Online Book Club

Stefanie of So Many Books


CLICK HERE to read my first post on Anna Karenina Read-Along: Parts 1 – 4

Photo of Mariinsky Theatre from

Anna Karenina Read-Along: Parts 1 – 4

CLICK HERE to the second and concluding post Parts 5-8: And the Curtain Falls

CLICK HERE to read my movie review of Anna Karenina (2012)

Thanks to Joe Wright’s upcoming film adaptation, I’m motivated to go past that famous first line to embark on this read of over 800 pages. Also thanks to you who are willing to come along with me, and those who are cheering us on, I have more fun than doing this alone.

Reading Anna Karenina for the first time, my immediate impression is that it is lighter than I’ve expected, melodramatic and even comical at times. Last month I just finished listening to an audiobook version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, so I can feel the difference in tone as soon as I begin. Despite its being a more relaxed read, it strikes me with how sharp Tolstoy’s observations of human nature are, and how masterful he is in piercing through the human psyche, no less than Dostoevsky’s heavy dealing of crime or punishment…. ummm, this may well be Tolstoy’s take on the subjects as well.

In reading this first part of the book, I’m particularly amused by Tolstoy’s sensitive and spot-on descriptions of his characters. Here’s an early example. Levin, insecure in front of Kitty and his formidable rival Vronsky, responds to Kitty’s mother Countess Nordston as she sarcastically mentions him to Vronsky:

 ‘Konstantin Dmitrich (Levin) despises and hates the city and us city-dwellers,’ said Countess Nordston.

‘My words must have a strong effect on you, since you remember them so well,’ said Levin, and, realizing that he had already said that earlier, he turned red. (p. 51)

People turn colour a lot in the book, and I’m most curious to see that on screen.

Tolstoy’s observation of love, or maybe, his understanding of men, oddly, is articulated by Anna:

I think,’ said Anna, toying with the glove she had taken off, ‘I think… if there are as many minds as there are men, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts. (p. 138)

Anna’s words here remind me of a modern cinematic version of Anna KareninaThe English Patient. In response to Almasy’s (Ralph Fiennes) statement that “A thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it”, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) responds: “Love? Romantic love, platonic love, filial love…? Quite different things, surely.” Is it merely coincidental that such a similar observation is pointed out in both cases by the female protagonist while the male character seems oblivious… just wondering.

But it is with the theme of forgiveness Tolstoy toys with that I’m most intrigued. No pun intended here, but I find some major twists and turns are based on this very notion of forgiveness in an ironic way. At the start Anna is the one urging Dolly to forgive her husband Stiva Oblonsky’s extramarital affair. No sooner has she succeeded as a mediator she becomes deeply entwined in one herself, one that apparently she cannot find a way out.

‘Be careful what you pray for,’ as if Tolstoy is saying. Anna desires forgiveness from her husband Alexi Alexandrovich. And he, upon seeing her suffer the near-death illness, throws away his wrath and grudges and forgives her unreservedly. Having read up to this point of the story, it appears that his spiritual epiphany is genuine.

Alas, Anna doesn’t realize that the whole package of forgiveness offered by her husband requires a mending of ways and a renewal of the marriage relationship. She has pleaded for magnanimity, now she gets it, and it sure doesn’t taste like what she’d wanted. Her brother Oblonsky tells Alexi Alexandrovich:

She’s crushed, precisely crushed by your magnanimity.” (p. 430)

What she wants isn’t forgiveness, but release.

It’s interesting to see how Tolstoy intersects and contrasts the three storylines of marriage relationship. Levin and Kitty at this point are only at the planning stage of their marriage, but look to be the couple that is bound for most bliss among the three. And if forgiveness does harvest its desirable crop, it can be found here in Levin discarding his grudge on Kitty’s rejection of his first proposal and the insult he has felt. He could well sympathize with Kitty, herself being a victim of her own delusional crush on Vronsky.

Levin’s agrarian idealism makes an interesting contrast to the high society of Petersburg and Moscow. I don’t know what will happen next with Levin and Kitty, will he move to the city or she to the country, will their love last? But that’s exactly the fun of reading, it lures you on. Why, Anna Karenina the novel used to be published as serial installments in a periodical from 1873 – 1877. The master storyteller must have known where to stop at the end of every episode.

Having seen the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation, I get an inkling of how screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love, 1998) stylizes the classic. So as I read, I look out for scenes and mentions of the stage, opera, and other spectacles. There are lots.

All the great world was in the theatre.” (P. 128)

Alexi Alexandrovich goes to the opera and concerts frequently, and Vronsky prefers the comical Opera Bouffe to the more serious ones. The horse race is watched by all, while Anna’s reaction to Vronsky’s fall is watched most carefully by her husband. They are all watching each other, being the audience and the actors at the same time. And we the readers are all observers of this whole spectacle of a literary extravaganza.

Oh the joy of reading together. If only we could watch together as well…

Here are the links to other Read-Along participants (if you’ve written a post on Anna Karenina, do leave a comment so I can link to it):

Janell of An Everyday Life

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

Stefanie of So Many Books

oh of This Writing Life


In my original plan, the date for our second and final post to wrap up this Read-Along is November 11. I just realized that is Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in Canada. You may have a special post in mind to mark the occasion. So let’s change our wrap up post to November 15, which will also coincide with the U.S. release of the film the next day:

Anna Karenina Read-Along Parts 5 – 8 Concluding Post to come out NOVEMBER 15.


CLICK HERE to view the trailer of the film Anna Karenina (2012), directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, 2007; Pride & Prejudice, 2005), screenplay by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love, 1998, and the brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1967)


Anna Karenina Read-Along: 10 Pages a Day

CLICK HERE to read my Concluding Post: Parts 5 – 8 And The Curtain Falls

CLICK HERE to read my post on Parts 1 – 4 of Anna Karenina. 


I’ve done the math. From today till the new movie adaptation’s general release (Nov.16) there are exactly three months. So that means finishing this 800 some pages novel needs reading about 10 pages a day. A doable plan.

Here’s the edition I’m using, the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. Feel free to explore others.

If you are one of the few like me who haven’t gone past that famous first line, now’s the chance to do it together. And for the majority of you who have read it, how about a reread before watching the award-aiming movie directed by Joe Wright of Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007) fame, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Michelle Dockery, Olivia Williams…

Not that we need them to lure us into reading Tolstoy.

Or that we need TIME to tell us Anna Karenina holds the no. 1 spot on their Top Ten Greatest Books of All Time.

I’ve totally enjoyed the camaraderie of a read-along in the Midnight’s Children experience. So, short of going to see the movie together, we can read the book as a virtual book group.

Here’s the simple plan. We’ll divide the eight parts of the book in half and just do two posts in the next three months, about seven weeks apart and from now till the first post:

Post 1: Part One to Four — September 30

Post 2: Part Five to Eight — November 15

A doable plan, isn’t it? Hope you can join in. Let me know in a comment so I can link to your blog. If you’re not a blogger, you can also read-along with us. Join in our discussion with your comment on the day of the posts.

Happy reading!


From your comments, here’s a list of those joining our Anna Karenina Read-Along:

Stefanie of So Many Books

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza 

Loucas Raptis of The Monster of Wrangellia 

Janell of An Everyday Life

Becca of Becca’s Byline


oh of This Writing Life

… so far. You’re still welcome to join us. Post your thoughts on Sept. 30 and Nov. 11 and/or just hop around to our posts to join in our discussions if you’re not a blogger.