Anna Karenina is finally about to descend on a/perture this week, to the excitement of many fans of Keira Knightley and costume dramas. But this is a very different beast than Pride and Prejudice or The Duchess, I learned when I saw the film at home in Houston over Thanksgiving break. There were a number of things I wish I had known before seeing the movie, and I figured I would share a few with you here to maximize your viewing experience.
1. Read the book. If you have the time to read a thousand pages of dense Tolstoy before you can come see Anna Karenina, I’d recommend it. Joe Wright has directed an Anna Karenina for people who love Anna Karenina, a version meant to be a welcome break from convention (more on that later) for people who have seen the story adapted time after time. You’ll appreciate it more if you’ve read the book – I haven’t, by the way.
But let’s be real, this is highly impractical. So time to move on to more realistic tips …
2. Read a plot summary before. SparkNotes and Wikipedia have done an excellent job for you there. I know it might seem like it spoils the fun to know about the story before you go in, but Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard are not going to wait for you to catch up with them. They seem to think you already know who these characters are and what motivates them. If you are like me flying blindly into the movie, that will feel kind of frustrating.
So don’t be behind the eight-ball from the start of the movie. Know what you are getting yourself into. And if you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the whole summary. Just read enough to where you get the gist of the story.
If it makes you feel better about “cheating,” know that my theater professor told us to do the same thing before we saw a Shakespeare show. “No one in the world goes to see Shakespeare to pick up on the plot, so read a summary before.”
3. Get some historical context. It’s okay to be a little shaky on your Russian history. I think my Modern European History teacher from high school would be mortified if she saw how clueless I was when my friend asked me in the middle of the movie what was going on in Russia at the time … and I just had absolutely no idea.
After a quick brush-up, I’ll impart a few things worth taking into consideration when mulling over Anna Karenina. At the time Tolstoy wrote the novel, Russian culture was at an impasse. Some thought Russia should follow the rest of Europe’s lead to imitate their success. Others thought Russia should and would be most powerful if it stayed Russian. And Russia at the time was also in political turmoil as tsars reached for more and more power while the intellectuals pressed for democracy.
These two tensions manifest themselves throughout the film. Keep a look out for them.
4. Read up on Tolstoy a little bit. He’s an interesting guy. Trust me on this … it might not add all that much to your viewing experience, but his life and times are definitely entertaining. Oprah’s book club did a great profile on him, although resources like SparkNotes and Wikipedia are again worthwhile too.
5. Know Joe Wright takes “all the world’s a stage” a little too literally. Anna Karenina is literally set on a stage and in a theater. It was Joe Wright’s idea, and he came up with it two weeks before production began – throwing his production team into chaos trying to rework their various crafts.
The stage is a very interesting metaphor for the Russian society that Anna has to almost literally perform in. Sometimes it’s an excellent way to suggest layers of depth in the story. But at others, it can be a little bit confusing. If you can’t quickly make logic of where a scene is taking place in the building, stop thinking about it and listen to the dialogue. That’s your best bet to find intellectual satisfaction.
Hope these tips help you to enjoy Anna Karenina more fully!