Saturday, November 24, 2007

Anna Karenina (1997)

The onset of Canadian winters and icy weather always make me think of Russia and Russia makes me think of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. When I worked at the ROM during a certain winter a number of years ago, I used to go to a nearby coffee shop which had a working fire place and curl up in a big chair and read my bruised copy of Anna Karenina. From my chair, I would watch the snow and wind swirl around outside my window and think how lucky I was to be there. I would imagine Kitty skating with Levin and Anna rushing from one engagment to another in a snow filled landscape.

By chance, my partner R happened upon the 1997 version of the film on television. Despite the mishmash of British, American and French accents, the story is too good and the Russian locale too beautiful for the film to be utterly ruined but it is hampered by the varying accents of an international cast and the attempt to fit the entire sprawling plot into a roughly two hour time frame. Notably, this was the first film production of Anna Karenina to be shot in Russia and for that we should be pleased as viewers.

I had read that when Tolstoy was conceiving the character of Anna she was quite a different sort of woman: vulgar, coarse, reveling in her adultery. But, slowly, inexorably, and much to his surprise, she became something else. She evolved into a sensitive, tortured and lonely woman of beauty and sophistication who succumbed to Vronsky because he appealed to an emptiness in Anna, to a lack of sensuality and love in her life.

Here, Anna Karenina (the French actress Sophie Marceau with a lovely but pronounced French accent) is the charming and beautiful sister of Stefan (Stiva) Oblonsky (American actor Danny Huston) who comes to Moscow to reconcile her brother Stiva and her sister-in-law Dolly after her brother's affair with the governess is uncovered. When she is met by her brother at the train station, she also meets Alexei Vronsky (Sean Bean) and the two are instantly smitten. Bean, an English actor from the north of England, has an appropriately noble Slavic profile and is suitably passionate in this role.

However, within moments of their meeting, a railway worker and peasant is accidentally killed under the wheels of the train. Anna feels it to be an ominous sign of things to come. The scene is set for tragedy.

Soon after, at a ball that Anna attends in Moscow with her brother, his wife Dolly and Dolly's sister Kitty (Mia Kirshner), Anna re-encounters Vronsky and sees that she has stolen Vronsky's attentions away from the very young, fragile Kitty. As a respectable aristocratic matron she resists but is aggressively pursued by Vronsky. Their affair begins in earnest.

Their passion alarms those closest to them not because it is immoral to have an adulterous affair but because the couple is so passionately in earnest that it threatens to upset the hypocritical facade that the upper classes have erected. Anna and Alexei will not play by the rules that the very rich have constructed: Do as you like but be discreet. They are not.

There are more premonitions of disaster. In the exact heart, or middle, of the novel Anna becomes pregnant. Vronsky accidentally fatally wounds his horse during a race and is forced to shoot the mare after the race. Clearly, his beloved horse Frou Frou is a also a symbol for Anna herself who is ultimately destroyed by Vronsky and his passions. But Vronsky, too, is more layered and complicated than the cad that he could have been presented as because he does truly love Anna and wishes to marry her.

After the birth of the daughter she bears with Vronsky, Anna decides to leave Karenin (Edward Fox) and live with Vronsky in Italy although this means that she cannot be with her son Seryozha or have access to him.

The Kitty/Levin subplot is extremely abbreviated here as is the spiritual turmoil that Kostya Levin (Alfred Molina) (who often voices many of the same theories that Tolstoy had) experiences about his religious beliefs and his purpose in life as a person of means with the power to effect change for "his" peasants and the land he owns. We see only small glimpses of these philosophical issues and his intensely despairing relationship with his ailing, drug addled brother who lives in degraded circumstances with a prostitute.

Kitty, after her romantic disappointment with Vronsky and subsequent nervous breakdown, marries Levin and leads a happy, productive life, in pointed contrast to the suffering that Anna undergoes. Also lacking here is the scene where Kitty demonstrates her mettle as she insists on being the one to deal with Kostya's dying brother even though Kostya attempts to shield her from the sordid situation.

Anna is forbidden to see her son but insists on doing so at great emotional risk. The scene in the book is heartrending. Here, the episode is so brief it fails to touch you. Marceau is so youthful that it's hard to picture her as the mother of a son this age. It is merely another in a series of disappointments for Anna of which there are many. Her husband will not sanction a divorce as he is under the influence of a high-minded society woman (Fiona Shaw) who is determined to make Anna pay for her "sins".

Anna travels rootlessly from country to country, from city to countryside, fearing that Alexei's mother has her eye on another young princess for her son to marry. Alexei is bored and restless and Anna grows increasingly jealous and unstable, haunted by terrible dreams. The dream in the novel was perhaps too frightening to show on film (Anna witnessing a peasant doing horrid, unpleasant things). Here Anna imagines herself under the wheels of a train, a silly, unnecessary omen of things to come.

Also missing is a pivotal scene where Anna insists at appearing at the opera without Vronsky and learning the full extent of her ostracization by high society in a way that Vronsky is not subject to as a sophisticated man of society. Vronsky objects and her refusal to comply is, in a manner, one more nail in the coffin of their relationship.

Marceau, as lovely and passionate as she is, emotes in a way that Tolstoy's Anna, does not. Greta Garbo who could be horrifically over stylized in her manner in the 1935 film always still epitomizes for me the quintessential Anna. Marceau is red hot, fiery, in her portrayal. But I think this is an error. Anna was passionate because she was desperate; she was at the end of her wits but she was dignified and always a woman of substance. Marceau plays her like a beautiful but impetuous teenager.

When Anna dies, the film chooses an extremely cliched manner of depicting her death, literally showing a candle being extinguished. Her horrific death is not shown, merely the aftermath; her body, lying in a railway shed, is seen at a distance by a distraught Vronsky.

In the end, Vronsky volunteers for the Serbian war against the Turks and seems stricken, lost. But somehow in the novel, you know that he will survive and essentially he has been untouched by the horror that he has witnessed and the sadness that he has caused in the lives of Anna, Karenin, her son and all those that love them.

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