Starring: Sophie Marceau (Anna), Sean Bean (Count Vronsky), Alfred Molina (Levin), Mia Kirschner (Kitty), James Fox (Karenin), Danny Huston (Stiva), Saskia Wickham (Dolly) and Fiona Shaw (Lydia Ivanova).
What made Anna Karenina famous? She died for love. Or worse, she killed herself for love. We live in times that view suicide less as a tragedy than as a social problem. From our point of view, the peasants might have got by without a Russian Revolution, had enough aristocrats fallen in love.
When you watch Bernard Rose's movie based on Leon Tolstoy's 800-page masterpiece of philosophical literature, you are so aware of the ending that you begin to pity Anna far too soon. We should be admiring her gorgeous clothes and her fancy footwork performing a quadrille under the sparkling chandeliers of St. Petersburg, but her fate is already larger than she is.
Films about the fate of fallen women have been a staple of cinema, and it's very easy to sink into the soap opera of another scarlet woman, who abandons her perfectly nice little family for the proverbially dashing Count Alexei Vronsky. He's mostly dashing off, because he's a predictable cad, and Anna's husband - who's not even mean by Russian standards - cannot let her back in the house, because social conventions are bigger than them both.
Seriously, folks, the film adheres to Tolstoy's distrust of an adamantine social order, but we may not get it on first viewing, because this "Anna Karenina" puts its money where the Russians did - into extraordinary stuff! It's such a magnificent recreation of Czarist Russia that you wish the actors would move a bit slower through those 20-foot archways among exquisite baroque furnishings. (The production designer never misses an opportunity to remind us of the distressing gap between the Russian aristocracy and the society it fed on.)
Alfred Molina makes a perfect Levin, talking us through the moral crisis of a culture where status alone counted. (Hmmmm, wonder why Bernard Rose thought it was time for another version of Tolstoy's moral masterpiece...?) The ethical goodness of Levin, which distinguishes him far more than his good looks, is quickly apprehended as just embarrassing, because here in the shallow end of the 20th Century, you don't have to be a member of the elite to know that his morality will get him nowhere.
Adaptor/director Bernard Rose attempts to do what no previous adaptation has done: to draw the character of Levin as equally important to Anna. Yet we're almost relieved every time he returns us to the melodrama of her life, because the audience for the film is even more shallow than Tolstoy's readers, whom he tried in vain to rouse from their sterile, gold-plated ignorance.
Fortunately, Sophie Marceau wears the role of Anna like a satin and lace ballgown. It's a perfect fit, and she is as fragile as one of those precious porcelain shepherdesses collected by 19th century women - and little old ladies who read The New Yorker in our time. Fortunately, Marceau's elegance allows her to appeal to us as a tragic heroine. Sean Bean comes nowhere near her. As Vronsky, he fails to convince us of the sensuality that would justify Anna's attraction to him. Is he her destiny or a shameful alternative to boredom?
Tolstoy believed in the power of sex, and, for all its highminded stature as a classic of Western Civ, that's what "Anna Karenina" is all about. Levin and Kitty (Mia Kirshner) bypass the passionate route to arrive at true domestic happiness after the chemistry has died down. Levin's brother has abandoned himself totally to an unworthy woman. And Anna's fate raises the question: what would you sacrifice for a few hours in bed with your great love?
One thing that has not changed is the commonplace social reaction to Anna's need for truth with her passion. Rose portrays the social aristocrats as sufficiently ridiculous and insular to make Anna want to scandalize them, although he depicts Anna's husband Karenin (James Fox) as a fine man, guilty of nothing more than excess stability.
To extract cinematic drama, Rose focuses on Anna's need for a
loud, confrontational truth over and above the kind of discretion
that has made a little passion on the side "de rigeur" as the French
say. Or like a little coleslaw with your marital sandwich. Truth
about passion is like truth in advertising: nobody expects it. It
only confuses the issue and sows the seeds of scandal. Alors, as the
Russians say, quel scandale!
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