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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game