Devices & Desires

‘Anna Karenina' & ‘Les Miserables'

Leo Tolstoy hated theater, or at least the more stylized varieties of it. The author of some well-received plays as well as his much more famous novels, the Count despised Shakespeare, ballet, opera, and any art that couldn’t be appreciated by a sensible peasant.

So it’s piquant that the latest cinematic adaptation of Anna Karenina is at its best when it is most stylized. Director Joe Wright has set the action on the stage of what looks like an elegant theater in nineteenth-century Moscow or St. Petersburg, and he employs this device not as a gimmick but in order to make some very Tolstoyan points. For it is mostly members of the upper class who are on stage. All show and no substance, they carry out their frivolous, soul-destroying amusements while the lower classes function as stagehands and extras, bustling about backstage, stacking scenery, working the lights, placing the props. They labor while the aristocrats and high-level bureaucrats are merely emoting or conducting formalities, and one sometimes feels that the backstage crew could pull the scenery down on the heads of the leading performers. Which, in a way, is just what happened in Russian history.

Significantly, the theatrical setting is jettisoned when Levin, hero of the subplot and the character with whom Tolstoy most identified, goes back to his...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.