Red curtains rise over a title card which reads: Imperial Russia, 1874 Prince Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) sits in a chair. As his barber sharpens a straight razor, Stiva can’t take his eyes off of it. Very quickly, the straight razor flies across Stiva’s face giving him a nice close shave without a single cut much to Stiva’s relief. In another part of the house, Daria “Dolly” Oblonsky (Kelly Macdonald), Stiva’s wife, is dressing their five children in preparation for their French lesson.
Stiva’s sister, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) reads a letter as she dresses and the following scenes unfold as the contents of the letter: Stiva gives one of his daughters a sweet until the French governess scolds him reproachfully. He quickly hurries off and taps the governess on the shoulder. She quickly follows telling the little girl to read her lessons twice while she hurries off to have sex with Stiva. Unfortunately for Stiva, Dolly finds a note from the governess which indicates their affair and confronts him in tears.
Anna puts down the letter and approaches her husband, Aleksei Karenin (Jude Law), in his office. She explains that Stiva’s marriage is in ruins thanks to his indiscretion with the governess, and he is begging her to come out to help with the situation and repair his marriage. Aleksei is not happy with the idea of Anna leaving him and their son, Serozha, to meddle in the affairs of others and points out that every sin has its price. He gives her his leave, and she visits Serozha before she goes while he is in his room playing with an elaborate train set. She promises to bring him back a present, but he says he doesn’t want a present he just wants her to stay.
On the train, Anna sits across from Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), a woman with a notorious reputation in Russian High Society. Vronsky comments that Anna is a lovely woman and is confused as to how she does not know Anna. Anna replies that she has never been to Moscow before. Vronsky explains that her notoriety is worth it because, after the fact, she’d always rather end up wishing she hadn’t done something than obsessing over wishing she had. Anna shows her a photo of Serozha, and Vronsky comments that she is returning to her own son.
Moscow Stiva is paid a visit by his old friend Konstatin Dimitrivich Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) at Stiva’s office. Stiva looks over his old friend and comments on “the Western clothes that Levin had sworn he would never wear again.” Levin shrugs off the observation to profess that he is in love with Kitty, Stiva’s sister-in-law. Stiva asks Levin why he did not propose last time and Levin explains that he always felt that Kitty was of the heavens while he was of the earth. But in his time away, he has come to realize that his life is no real life without her by his side. Stiva invites Levin to a party that is being held that very evening advising him to confess his feelings to Kitty…and get a new look: new boots, new coat, and a proper hat.
That evening, Levin arrives sharply dressed for dinner with Stiva. Stiva laments that time is unfair; he was a good husband, loving father, and then his wife ended up old and tired and he was left with his sexual vigor. Levin laughs and points out that his feelings for Kitty are based in love whereas Stiva is merely talking about his appetite. Stiva asks Levin if he’s heard of a man named Count Vronsky and tells Levin that the man is Levin’s rival for Kitty’s affection having arrived when Levin left. Levin hears someone calling out his name and sees Kitty (Alicia Vikander) calling to him from the balcony.
Levin goes to see Kitty, and she tells him that she is happy he’s in Moscow. As socialites start to enter the ballroom, Levin proposes to Kitty, but she apologizes; she can’t marry him. Levin laments that it could never be and wanders off bumping right into Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). Levin watches on as Vronsky approaches Kitty and dances with her. Levin is presented with his coat and hat and walks out into the streets.
Levin seeks out his older brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot), who gave up his inheritance and lives in squalor. Nikolai is surprised that Levin knew how to find him, and is amused to know that the government is keeping tabs on him. Nikolai tells Levin that he is on the wrong side of history that money, power, and even love are all the last illusions of a dying order. He points to his “wife," Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a woman whom he took from a brothel and cares for him. Nikolai asks Levin if he’s married and tells Levin to marry one of his peasants and toasts to the brotherhood of man. Levin tells Nikolai to go see a doctor and leaves him with money.
Vronsky arrives at the train station and watches as it pulls into the station. Stiva jogs through the crowd to find Anna. As Anna descends from the train, she bumps into Vronsky and the two share a look for a moment. Vronsky watches and realizes who she is when she hugs Stiva. Anna comes back onto the train to say goodbye to Vronsky’s mother. As he kisses Anna’s hand to wish her well, the train lurches forward by accident and runs over a railroad worker. As Anna, the Countess, Stiva, and Vronsky leave, Anna reflects that the poor man’s family will be in need which prompts Vronsky to leave a large amount of money with a representative of the railroad for the deceased man’s family.
Anna approaches Dolly and apologizes for Stiva’s behavior. Dolly can’t bear to be with Stiva, but Anna insists that Stiva still loves her; his actions were from an animal’s instincts but his heart is from where he seeks forgiveness. She asks Dolly if she loves Stiva, and Anna insists that if Dolly does not attempt to make things right with Stiva by forgiving him, then they will never be able to be happy dooming themselves to a wretched future. Kitty visits to watch after Dolly and Stiva’s children and invites Anna to the ball that evening.
Levin returns to his estate out in the country a small but comfortable house. His mother tells Levin that she thought he would return with a wife not a silk hat. Levin tells her there will be no next time as he has no plans to leave.
Kitty arrives at the ball in a white dress, and everyone’s attention is drawn to her. A man immediately grabs her for a dance, and they waltz through the ball room. Soon after, Stiva arrives with Anna on his arm dressed in a black dress. Kitty goes over and bows politely. Vronsky approaches Anna and Stiva, so Anna grabs her brother and the two dance. Vronsky watches on and extends his arm to Kitty. He tells her that she looks lovely but once the dance is over, he walks away leaving her to dance with a young boy she promised her third dance to. Vronsky is on the upper levels drinking with compatriots.
Vronsky approaches Anna and demands a dance. The pair cut through the dance floor tableau gracefully in such a manner that it draws the attention of all who watch - as if they are the only two in the room. Kitty watches in jealousy, and once the dance is finished, Anna takes one look at Kitty’s face to realize what she has done. She pushes Kitty towards Vronsky and leaves the ball.
Anna boards a train back to St. Petersburg, all the while her mind on her dance with Vronsky instead of the book in her hands. The train makes a stop and Anna gets off to breathe the fresh air only to be approached by Vronsky. She asks why he is leaving Moscow and he insists that he must be where she is. She tells him to go back to Kitty but he refuses as it being wrong or right would make no difference to him.
That evening, Anna rests in bed beside her son and gently traces her fingers over his back, kissing his hand. Aleksei continues going over his work and approaches Anna as she struggles to write a letter which she claims is for Dolly and Kitty. Aleksei rests a hand on her shoulder and tells her that she is good, but it is time for bed. Aleksei asks how Moscow reacted to the new statute he passed, but Anna points out that no one was talking. Aleksei points out that it caused quite the sensation here in St. Petersburg.
Anna goes to an art show and listens to a piano performance beside Princess Betsy Tverskoy (Ruth Wilson), Vronsky’s cousin. Vronsky arrives at these places as well using the pretext of visiting his cousin to see Anna. While amused by his antics, she knows that his behavior will be noticed by others. Vronsky goes out drinking with a superior and is offered a post and promotion far away from St. Petersburg. Vronsky requests to stay here which the superior agrees to but points out the promotion was due to machinations of Vronsky’s mother.
Vronsky approaches Betsy in a theater while she scolds him for not attending her dinner pointing out that Anna was not in attendance either. Vronsky looks through his binoculars at Anna, and she glances over at Vronsky while he stares at her. Betsy smiles at Vronsky while he confesses that he feels quite ridiculous.
Betsy throws a small party for the rich socialites and Betsy talks with several young women who comment that Anna and Vronsky’s “making up their minds in public” is disrespectful to Aleksei But another woman insists that Aleksei Karenin is a fool and that Anna is the best of them. Vronsky arrives early to the party, and Betsy tells him that he is starting to look pathetic. Vronsky laments that he is losing Anna and Betsy sharply responds that he is trying to make a virtuous woman break her marriage vows.
Anna arrives at the party late, and Betsy approaches her to tell Anna she’s just in time for the surprise a beautiful fireworks display that illuminates the sky. Vronsky sees the fireworks from his carriage and immediately tells the driver to turn around. He approaches Anna from behind and asks her if he can get her a drink openly flirting. She tells him that she would much prefer to try a cigarette. She scolds him for behaving very badly, and he tells her that she is to blame for that. Aleksei arrives at the gathering as Vronsky approaches Anna and asks her if she is happy to see him or not. Anna insists that this must stop as he makes her feel guilty of something despite the fact that nothing has happened. She insists that Vronsky return to Moscow and apologize to Kitty. He refuses.
Betsy approaches with Aleksei and he tells her that he has come to take her home. Anna immediately says no, insisting that Aleksei should simply send the carriage back to get her. Aleksei leaves. As the night draws to a close, Anna prepares to leave, and Vronsky insists on an answer should he leave? When he says he will accept the position, she confesses that she wants him to stay.
When Anna returns to the house, Aleksei is up waiting for her he says that while he did not see anything between herself and Vronsky, others were talking. He confesses that he has the right to ask her about her feelings for the man but points out that they are bound by an oath to God which can only be broken by a crime against God. Anna goes to bed, so Aleksei follows her and says that if he is wrong, he begs her pardon. She lies awake in bed, and the next day immediately goes to Vronsky’s apartment where they have sex.
Stiva pays Levin a visit in the country side and the two go shooting. While they have dinner together, Levin asks of Kitty and her engagement, but Stiva confesses that she did not marry Vronsky. While Levin rants about how Kitty’s heart turned him down, Stiva insists that Levin man up and try again, tossing a rag on the young man’s face.
Kitty helps Dolly tend to her newborn child, and Dolly tries to console the young girl but Kitty insists that she does not think of Vronsky or Anna except to hate them. When Dolly asks about Levin, Kitty angrily changes the subject.
Anna and Vronsky sit on a white cloth in a country forest. She asks if he loves only her, and Vronsky says yes Anna asks how much as they begin to have sex again. That evening, Vronsky is at the barracks when his friend Sasha approaches him and tells him that the others talk of him and that his pursuit of a married woman will prevent him from climbing the ladder. The pair go out and look at Vronsky’s horse, Frou Frou, and watch as she is cared for. Sasha asks if he thinks that Frou Frou can win tomorrow’s big race.
Aleksei is doing paperwork when he is approached by a Countess who tells Aleksei that he is too tolerant of his wife who Aleksei insists is beyond reproach. Informed of his wife’s affair, Aleksei decides to surprise her in the countryside.
Vronsky approaches Anna in the field before the race and tells her that he needed to see her. He asks her what she was thinking about, and she confesses that she’s pregnant. Vronsky is overjoyed and insists that now they can be together. He tells her to leave Aleksei, but she points out that she would never be able to see her son again.
Serozha runs through a garden maze hiding from Anna in a game of hide and seek. Aleksei appears surprising Anna and she invites Aleksei to join her at the races, but Aleksei declines. Aleksei comes along instead and observes the race noticing that Anna is rooting for Vronsky’s horse. The race commences and Anna anxiously watches Vronsky race which Aleksei notices. When it looks like Vronsky will take the lead the horse trips, flips, and throws Vronsky to the ground which causes Anna to scream out his name in fear. Aleksei comes forward and grabs her, insisting that he is here but Anna pushes him away; the entire crowd goes silent at Anna’s outburst and watch on as Vronsky draws a pistol and shoots Frou Frou in the head to end her suffering.
In the carriage ride back, Aleksei comments on Anna’s behavior telling her that her conduct was improper and that it must not occur again. He tells her that she should tell him that he is wrong to think that and that he is mistaken, but Anna confesses her feelings for Vronsky and that she is his mistress. The carriage comes to a stop, and Aleksei tells Anna that he will not have a scandal. He tells her that she will keep the privileges and duties of a wife and not see Vronsky again since they will be returning home tomorrow.
Leaving the carriage, Anna runs into the gardens where Vronsky waits she tells him that she confessed everything to Aleksei Vronsky begs her to get a divorce. That night she pays her son a visit and kisses him on the forehead while he sleeps. Aleksei tells Anna that it is time for bed, and as she lies in bed she tells him that she’s Vronsky’s wife now. He walks out of the room, and Anna follows him. He asks her what he did to deserve this but gets no response.
Levin is hard at work in the fields among his people. That night he admires one of his worker's daughters and her boyfriend, their happiness the very thing which eludes him. Turning to the worker, he asks if living simply is the thing which he longs for. Sleeping that night on a bale of hay, he looks out into the dawn and has a vision of Kitty.
Vronsky awakens in bed to see a note on his bedside. He is summoned to Anna’s house and passes through the door as Aleksei leaves. He sees Anna sitting in waiting, visibly pregnant. She yells at him wondering why he has not visited and Vronsky replies that he was doing his job and busy. She complains that she had a bad dream that she will die giving birth to Vronsky’s son, but Vronsky insists that it’s just a bad dream. She apologizes for her outburst, saying it was the demon in her. Seeing her devolving into a kind of madness Vronsky starts to look at her differently.
Aleksei sits at his work distracted with rage at the thought of Vronsky in his home. He storms back into the house and finds Anna and rips away a bunch of love letters that Anna has been hiding away from him. He announces that he will be leaving to go and perform his duties, that their son will stay with his eldest sister and that he will not return to this house until the divorce is finalized and Anna is driven out into the streets. Anna begs Aleksei to leave Serozha, but he declares she is a woman without honor and thanks God for removing the fever of love from his mind.
Levin arrives at Stiva’s office once more and declares that he needs Stiva’s advice. Stiva smiles visibly pleased. Levin follows Stiva through the streets and brings her to his place where Dolly and Kitty wait. Kitty turns and sees Levin and feels nervous. She apologizes for being young and silly “in those days” and Levin jokes that it was months ago. Stiva finds a letter from Aleksei and soon, Aleksei is there in person to tell Stiva of the upcoming divorce. Stiva is blindsided and insists that Aleksei stay for dinner despite the fact the connection between their families is to be severed. Nonetheless, he agrees to stay.
Levin is asked by one of the dinner guests if he believes in love and he says that he would die for love pure love as adultery is but an impurity and greed indulging in sensual desire for the sake of it is not love. This makes Aleksei uncomfortable. After dinner, Dolly tells Aleksei that his decision will ruin Anna and that their lives will be unhappy unless he forgives her. But Aleksei does not wish to forgive, he tells her that Anna wronged him, and he hates her for all she’s done.
After dinner, Levin and Kitty sit at a table playing with children’s letter blocks. Levin places four tiles in a vertical line before spelling out “D.N.M.N.” He helps Kitty put the message together until the blocks spell out: “Did No Mean Never?” Taking the blocks, she rearranges them until they spell out her own puzzle revealing “Then I Did Not Know.” He asks her about the present and she puts down one more puzzle: “Can you forget?” He slides over three letter: “I.L.Y” “and I never stopped.”
Aleksei walks out in the cold and receives a letter from Anna which states “I beg you to come. I need your forgiveness. I am dying.” He tears up the letter and throws it in the wind…watching the pieces fall around him before giving way to snow. He returns to her as she has gone into premature labor.
Aleksei watches on as Anna talks to the nurse and doctor and tells them to hide the young girl away as it will hurt Aleksei to see her. Vronsky stands against the wall and watches as Anna confesses she’s afraid of death. Aleksei stands beside her and holds her hand, but his attention is drawn back to Vronsky. Vronsky comes to her bedside and she tells Vronsky to look at Aleksei, as Aleksei is a saint.
Afterward, Aleksei approaches Vronsky and tells Vronsky that he must leave. He says that he forgives the two and will look after her forever as Vronsky bursts into tears and Aleksei pats him awkwardly on the shoulder. Vronsky returns to his mother and she berates him calling him a child and a laughing stock. He tries to send her away, but she continues to scold him for dishonoring a man who devoted his life to Russia and demands that he return to Moscow.
Aleksei visits Anna while Betsy visits. Anna tells Aleksei that Betsy informed her of Vronsky’s imminent departure and wishes to say goodbye but that Anna does not wish to see him. When Betsy leaves, Anna bursts to tears. Aleksei assures her that it is her decision and asks what he can do for her she screams at him for cracking his knuckles and confesses she is a bad woman who can’t breathe or repay his kindness. Since she didn’t die, she has to live with it. Aleksei asks if she wants to see Vronsky, but she tells him “not to say goodbye.” He tells her that she is irretrievably lost and that if they were to divorce, she would be the guilty party and all subsequent marriages would be illegitimate. He tells her that the daughter has the protection of Aleksei s name and that it would be a sin to allow her to destroy herself. But Anna insists that she and Vronsky love each other and she can’t live like this with him. Aleksei grabs her foot and says that Vronsky robbed him of his cloak, and he will give him his coat refusing the divorce but allowing her to leave. Anna goes and finds Vronsky who tells her that she looks pale insisting that they run away to Italy.
Levin and Kitty return to Levin’s estate. His household is impressed by Levin’s new wife and she is equally drawn into their new household insisting on seeing everything. Levin receives a telegraph concerning his brother, Nikolai, whose sickness has gotten worse and has nowhere to go. He visits Nikolai and his wife and asks Nikolai where they went, as he had searched for him before the wedding. He tells them that they can’t stay now, but he tells Kitty everything about the situation since he thinks that it will upset her. She invites Nikolai and his wife to join them and dutifully takes charge washing Nikolai and nursing him with Masha. Levin is taken aback by her selflessness convinced that she has grown since their last proposal as opposed to accepting it from desperation. Nikolai dies and the three bury him.
Aleksei receives word that Anna and Vronsky have returned back to St. Petersburg for Serozha’s birthday. While gift shopping, Anna receives a letter that states her ruined reputation means she must never see Serozha ever again. She forces her way into the house and past all her former servants to find the boy sleeping in his room. She wakes him and confesses her love for him. Aleksei arrives and watches her standing over the boy and overhears that Serozha must love Aleksei for he is a good, kind man, and better than her. Serozha insists that no one is better than Anna and when she sees Aleksei, she walks away without another word.
Vronsky arrives back at their apartments at night and asks Anna why she is sitting with the lights off. She accuses him of seeing other women. She asks to go to the Opera, but Vronsky tells her that she cannot go there as their reputations have been too gravely stained. But she scolds him for being afraid and insists that she is not. But when she arrives, she is treated like a pariah. Vronsky arrives, and Anna watches as Vronsky canoodles with several young women. Vronsky asks a former friend of Anna’s to call on her, but the former friend insists that Anna “broke the rules.”
A friendly neighbor says a word to Anna and his wife goes ballistic causing a scene in the theater saying that Anna has nerve, “flaunting herself as a slut in front of the society.” Vronsky stands to go to her, but Betsy says that rescuing her puts a seal on the whole fiasco. He freezes, and she watches from across the theater. Betsy says that divorce will solve everything, but Vronsky insists that she is his wife in all but title.
Anna leaves the Opera and returns home when Vronsky returns and she insists that if he loved her, he would have stopped her from going despite the fact that he tried. Giving her some alcohol to help her sleep, they once more have sex, and she dreams of a moving train.
The next day, she goes to lunch in a restaurant and is still treated as a pariah until Dolly arrives to talk to her. She explains that Kitty and Levin are expecting their first child. Dolly then goes on to point out that Stiva is the same, because men don’t really change.
That evening, Anna cries and pours herself a drink as Vronsky sleeps. Anna asks Vronsky to leave for the countryside, but he insists that he cannot as he must go see his mother. She accuses him of spending time with another woman, and that he stopped loving her when he gave up everything to be with her. She declares that they are finished and pours herself another drink while Vronsky watches on. She says she’s sorry, and he accepts her apology insisting that he loves her. But we focus on her sleeping. She awakens and sees him hiding a telegram from Stiva. She accuses him of cheating and sees Vronsky picked up by another socialite. She loses her grip on reality convinced that Vronsky is cheating she drives him away and drinks more and more.
She boards a train and thinks of Vronsky making love to another woman. At the train stop, she imagines all eyes on her with time seemingly frozen. She thinks about the train wheels again and makes a decision. As a train starts to pull into the station, she walks towards it and sticks her head under the train getting dragged under and killed as she screams out for God’s forgiveness. As she dies, she thinks of a door shutting on Vronsky’s surprised face.
Levin works in his field alongside his workers, and they discuss knowing what is right and how it can sometimes be divorced from reason which did not come into play when he married Kitty. Rain falls as Levin returns home to see Kitty and their son. He tells her that he came to understand something that love can grow from immature beginnings into something beautiful and real.
Stiva smokes outside his house sadly. A little girl walks through a field while Aleksei reads on. Serozha calls out to the little girl and runs to pick her up. The boy turns to his father, and we pull out to see the field is growing out of the very stage the story began on.
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