Take a Drink: for romantic disappointments
Take a Drink: for witty bon mots
Take a Drink: for whispers
Take a Drink: “Communists”
Do a Shot: for trains
Do a Shot: for brotherly kisses
By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
Classic Russian novels are a particular challenge to bring to the big screen. Just the epic length and breadth of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky tome is a challenge to boil down into two hours or so of plot and character development. Their best versions are often either truly epic in length (Sergey Bondarchuk’s 427 minute War and Peace) or adaptations in spirit more than name like Lav Diaz’s also epic-length Norte, the End of History (Crime and Punishment).
One novel that has arguably never been properly adapted is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Whether it be Greta Garbo in 1935, Keira Knightley in 2012, or Sophie Marceau in 1997, the film’s focus is the titular ill-fated lover. Trapped in a benign but loveless marriage, Anna Karenina finds herself drawn to the dashing cavalryman Vronski (Sean Bean). Meanwhile, the softspoken, philosophical Levin (Alfred Molina) woos Kitty, a young society girl also drawn to Vronski.
Location, location, location. The absolute draw to 1997’s Bernard Rose-directed adaptation is its real Russian locations. The film plays like almost a highlight reel of Russia’s most beautiful exterior and interior architecture, establishing an authentic sense of place that the other more stagey versions can’t match. Rose and DP Daryn Okada shoot them beautifully, particularly with his use of wide tracking shots and slow, expressive zooms.
It’s eye candy… perhaps even Toblerone-level
From a storytelling perspective, this adaptation’s best contribution is how it approaches nearly every character (looking at you, bitchy sister-in-law) with complete empathy. In particular, the character of Karenin, Anna’s husband, is often villainized elsewhere, but here James Fox creates a complex, quite logical man stuck in a situation not of his devising, and only willing to accommodate Anna’s cheating so much. He’s unemotional, yes, but Fox hints at the anger and betrayal percolating underneath that surface calmness. Also, Alfred Molina is always a welcome presence of course, and Sean Bean is a far better Vronski than freakin’ Kick-Ass.
My Mom forgot to pick me up. Can I get a ride?
Many have criticized Marceau’s performance, which isn’t extremely fair. She displays a complex cocktail of emotions, in turns head over heels, naive, selfish, despairing… but never really empathetic. To be fair, neither Garbo nor Knightley could crack this nut, either. Tolstoy has 900 + pages to explore the psychology of this poor woman, producing one of literature’s truly great characters. Two hours simply isn’t enough, especially with the Levin/Kitty subplot distracting attention, and if we just present Anna’s development in the light of her choices, it’s impossible to get past her selfishness and self-pity.
Along those lines, the rest of the plot also must be streamlined to fit a feature-length film, and Rose struggles here, too reverent to make the broad cuts and jumps that are necessary. The result feels rushed and shallow.
Say what you will about Joe Wright’s version, but at least he tried something ambitious. He dared to be great, attacking the material in a way we haven’t seen before. Rose, however, sticks to convention, and ultimately gives us a somewhat stuffy, overly familiar experience.
Bernard Roses’ Anna Karenina is a beautifully shot and produced adaptation of the classic novel that doesn’t take enough chances to truly stick out.