"Sin has a price. You may be sure of that." This comment, which opens the film Anna Karenina, reflects the moral code of author Leo Tolstoy, but only with a hidden twist. Whose sin are we talking about? The lustful wife who cannot control her passion or the prideful husband who cannot control his contempt? Such wisdom that all fall short in the quest to be good and compassionate is much of what makes this sprawling work a classic.
Long before authors were exiled to the make-believe land of gender uniformity, Tolstoy offered a profound look at what really occurs in the world of men and women, trapped between the monkeys and gods, between primal needs and social creeds. Here is a story so visceral it can survive a transition from the dusty Russian novel hefty enough to require a wheelbarrow for transport into the recent movie nominated for an Oscar.
Still, Anna Karenina had to swap her old-fashioned corset for an equally-contorting cosmetic surgery to achieve some user-friendliness. The classic was reworked. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright have twisted this literary love triangle into a cinematic style triangle. The film weaves together artistic elements from theater, movies and paintings. Bureaucrats stamp in rhythm like street dancers stomp in sync. A toy train becomes a real train that becomes a prop train. Such gimmicks make the unruly source-material more manageable but also reduce the epic feel.
The casting is a little distracting. Jude Law plays the puritanical husband rather than the one screwing the nanny, which begs mockery. Talk about art not imitating life! Keira Knightley has a regal elegant look, but seems more an ice-queen from the border of the kingdom of Anorexia than a hot-blooded bundle of curves bursting out of the straight lines of 1874 Imperial Russia. (Sucking on a stick of Toblerone chocolate then expelling is not the sensual binge Tolstoy has in mind, though there are kinky similarities.) Bottom line: this Anna Karenina is half as good but twice as accessible as the book.