This ‘Anna Karenina’ has overlooked virtues. Not least that it is true to Tolstoy

Critics have found the heroine insufficiently moving - but by always expecting to be swept off our feet we do a disservice to our artists

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In a famous passage in Persuasion, Anne Elliot tells a sentimental sailor to mend his reading habits, hoping he does not read only poetry – a form “seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely” – and recommending such prose works of the best moralists as were “calculated to rouse and fortify the mind”.

You could read that as a reference to the Rousseauian cult of feeling, an affectionate attack (playfully tempered by Anne’s consciousness of her own priggishness) on soppy men, or a hint as to how Jane Austen would like her novels to be read. If the latter, then I am guilty of letting her down, since I come close to weeping every time it seems that Anne has lost her chance with Captain Wentworth, every time it looks as though they are going to make up their differences after all, and every time, when indeed they do, that Anne goes to her room for “an interval of meditation, serious and grateful” as “the best corrective of every thing dangerous in such high-wrought felicity”.

In my own defence, I must say it isn’t only the happiness of the lovers I weep for, but the exquisitely tactful intelligence with which Jane Austen applies the brake to rapture. Love is fine but precarious, she reminds us. Love is serious: a thing informed by thought as well as feeling. If Persuasion were composed of no more than the words “every thing dangerous in such high-wrought felicity”, I’d still esteem it above most novels. Reflection, in Jane Austen, can be as poignant and gripping as the emotional tumult of her characters.

Which brings me to the film of Anna Karenina, now going the rounds and not quite getting, it seems to me, the praise it deserves. Its director, Joe Wright, first endeared himself to me when he filmed Pride and Prejudice with a seasoning of Wuthering Heights, thereby knocking on the head the fallacy, put about by the Brontës themselves, that they were hot and Miss Austen was cold. His new film also does surprising things with emotional temperature, distancing the action through the device of shooting it as though in a theatre – now balletically, now as tableau, never letting us forget, as cinema so often wishes us to forget, that art is not the same as reality.

It could be that he had to make the best of budget restrictions, in which case necessity has once again shown its virtue. How wonderful to see a 19th-century novel rendered on the screen without recourse to breathtaking panorama when we’re in the country, and yelling children playing with hoops and hauliers beating horses in a fog of dry ice when we’re in the town. In fact, the place we’re never allowed to forget we’re in is a novel, and if that stops us indulging the sentimentality of living Anna’s tragedy a) as though it’s a thing of magnificence, and b) as though it’s our own, then so much the better.

This isn’t to say we aren’t on the edge of our seats as she succumbs to a passion we know will be fatal even if we haven’t read the book. But we don’t lose ourselves in it. Critics have complained of the limpness of the film’s Vronsky, as though he must be deserving of her love before we can be a party to her giving it. But what if the whole point is that he isn’t? What if what Anna does is explicable only by the law of irresistible attraction, no matter what you’re attracted to – an act of folly in which we recognise our own capacity for erotic madness all right but with which we don’t choose to throw in our lot?

Whether we are in the grip, today, of another cult of feeling I don’t know, but it would appear that, like Anne Elliot’s morbid poetry-loving sailor, we want to be upset by art more than we want to be “fortified” and “roused” by it. Readers routinely complain if characters in a novel fail to meet the criterion of identifiability, which as often as not means those characters don’t make them feel that what’s happening is happening to them. I don’t claim to be exempt, but how often, when we say we are moved by a book, is it merely ourselves being moved that we are moved by?

Critics, anyway, have in the main counted it a fault in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina that the heroine doesn’t move them more. So how moving must moving be? The novel Tolstoy wrote is a far cry from the one he originally set out to write. In Anna, he created a flesh and blood woman, not an illustrated sermon against adultery. But the high-wrought felicity Anna risks everything for is not self-justifying by virtue of its intensity. Infidelity is not damned in this novel – only think of the vexatious charm of Anna’s faithless brother – but where the most urgent questions are asked about love and devotion, how trust is lost, where happiness is to be found, tears are not meant to drown judgement.

The idea of art fortifying our minds sits uneasily with us. We rightly dread losing the dramatic to the didactic. But we’re in trouble, as cinema-goers as we are as readers, once we start leaving our minds at home. What’s good about Joe Wright’s film is that, without any loss of magnanimity, or indeed feverishness, it takes us back to Tolstoy the thinker. To complain of distance is to make an unwarrantable assumption about the necessity of closeness. I don’t question the pleasure of engaging with fictional lovers as irresponsibly as they engage with one another; immersion in rapture is one of the joys of reading. But we honour those lovers more, as beings in a moral landscape, and as creatures of a serious artist’s imagination, if we feel their sorrows at our hearts while still managing to keep our wits about us.

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