I have very, very vague memories of watching a Russian version of Anna Karenina years ago—it had been telecast on Doordarshan, with subtitles, and I, probably barely a teenager back then, understood very little of it.
But last year, having finally got around to reading Tolstoy’s novel, I decided I should find a cinematic adaptation to watch. Just to see how a screenwriter might interpret this pretty sprawling work (not as sprawling as War and Peace, but still). I read, in several places, that at least as far as English-language cinema is concerned, the 1935 Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo, was considered the best version there is. Despite much searching online, I couldn’t find a copy of it (the ones that were there were dubbed in other languages), but I did find this one, made thirteen years later and starring Vivien Leigh as Anna.
The story of Anna Karenina begins in the Moscow home of her brother Stepan Oblonsky (Hugh Dempster), where Stepan’s wife Dolly (Mary Kerridge) is giving him the cold shoulder and getting ready to leave the house along with her children. Stepan, it emerges, has been having an affair with the children’s French governess (whom Dolly has now of course sent packing). Dolly is furious as well as very weepy. Stepan is surrounded by chaos and confusion.
But in the midst of all this turmoil, a telegram comes from St Petersburg: Anna is arriving. Stepan is relieved; Anna, he knows, is very fond of Dolly (and vice-versa), and will hopefully be able to soothe Dolly into forgiving him. Stepan therefore goes to the railway station to receive Anna…
… who has travelled in the same carriage as the Countess Vronsky (Helen Haye). The two women have spent most of their journey talking about (and praising) their respective sons. Anna shows the countess a photograph of her young son Sergei (Patrick Skipwith), whom Anna obviously dotes on. The countess shows Anna a photo of her son, the handsome military officer Count Vronsky (Kieron Moore). Anna is interested, but only in a polite sort of way.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, at a gathering in her home, young Kitty Shcherbatsky (Sally Ann Howes) is entertaining her parents’ guests. Among these is Konstantin Levin (Niall MacGinnis), who is deeply in love with Kitty, but a little tongue-tied about it. Kitty is perspicacious enough to have realized Levin’s feelings for her, and when he starts to say something, the preliminary to what is apparently going to be a proposal, Kitty is quick to nip it in the bud. She tells Levin that she likes him very well, but he will only be a friend, no more.
Even as a disappointed and visibly shaken Levin watches, he sees whom Kitty prefers: the dashing Count Vronsky, who is suave and flirtatious and knows how to charm Kitty. Kitty has been bowled over by Vronsky, and it takes little for her to decide that this is the man for her, not Levin. Kitty is too bedazzled to even notice that Vronsky is just flirting.
Vronsky, going to the railway station to receive his mother, bumps into Oblonsky—and, more importantly, into the beautiful Anna. There is no immediate attraction here; Anna smiles, and has a brief conversation with him in the presence of the Countess Vronsky, but that’s it. Stepan Oblonsky comes, more pleasantries are exchanged, and the Vronskys and Oblonsky and Anna go their respective ways.
As Stepan had hoped, Anna is able to work her magic: she talks to Dolly, persuades her that it is only her Stepan loves, and manages to bring about a reconciliation. All is happiness and peace in the Oblonsky household, with Dolly and Stepan once again in harmony, and their many children fawning over their beloved aunt.
That evening, though, Anna has to go to a ball. And there, she comes face to face with Vronsky. This time, unlike their fleeting meeting at the railway station, they are more at leisure to inspect each other, to approve, and to dance.
To dance a lot, to the dismay of Kitty Shcherbatsky. Kitty had promised Vronsky one of the dances, but he’s so enraptured by Anna, he forgets all about Kitty. She sits by the sidelines, watching as Vronsky and Anna whirl right past her, without either of them even noticing her.
Later, though, when Anna returns to the Oblonsky house, it’s obvious that she, at least, had noticed. Vronsky may have had eyes for nobody but Anna, but Anna saw, and Anna feels guilty about it. She confesses to Dolly that she spoiled the evening for Kitty; Kitty had been so happy before that…
Dolly is blunt, she says that yes, Anna danced a lot with Count Vronsky. Anna concedes that yes, she did. Then, after a pause, she adds: “But I’m really not to blame.” After another pause, another moment of thought, she adds: “Or perhaps I am… a little.”
This, so early in this film, is the crux of the matter, the main pivot of not just this story, but this character. On the one hand, Anna is sensitive enough to see that she has (possibly) wrecked Kitty’s chances of happiness (what might have happened if Anna and Vronsky had not run into each other?). On the other hand, she is selfish enough to absolve herself of blame—and then again, not so devoid of a conscience that she doesn’t realize that perhaps she is, after all, to blame, even if only a little.
Anna Karenina is a complex, nuanced character. Even as she plunges into a torrid affair with Vronsky, an affair that will result in her being ostracized by all of society, will tear her away from her beloved son Sergei and leave her eventually shattered and disillusioned and horribly lonely, Anna goes doggedly on.
Perhaps she really isn’t to blame. Because, in the huge mansion where she lives with Sergei and her husband, Alexey Alexandrovich Karenin (Ralph Richardson), Anna is woefully neglected and alone. Karenin is a statesman, so deeply involved in his work that he has no time for Anna, and makes it obvious. She is a trophy wife, a charming hostess, the mother to his son: not really, ever, his wife. For Karenin, duty is what matters: his duty to his family, his duty to his wife. Love does not enter into the equation.
Can Anna then be blamed for not wanting to stay on any longer with Karenin? When Karenin treats her so shabbily and cannot give her the emotional support Anna needs, is she at fault for being bowled over by the attentive and charming Vronsky?
So much so that for Vronsky, for the chance of a life of excitement and passion, Anna gives up not just Karenin (no great sacrifice, that) and society, but also—and this is what hurts her the most—her beloved Sergei. For Vronsky, for a life of her own, untrammeled and no longer bound by duty.
But Anna will find that it is not quite so simple. Not just because Karenin shows himself to be obstinate and unforgiving, but because Anna has not bargained for how she will change, how Vronsky too will change. How their relationship will evolve…
What I liked about this film:
Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina. Leigh is brilliant, at times so sensationally beautiful and charming that it’s easy to see why Vronsky falls in love with her; and at other times, so vulnerable and miserable, so close to the edge, that you cannot help but pity her.
This is a tormented creature; a woman who has let her heart overrule her and is now paying the price for that. A woman selfish enough to want happiness for herself, even over her own son (and, really, when you see how unhappy Anna is with Karenin, can one blame her for seeking her own fulfillment, her own life?) And yet, a woman who is also riven by guilt, by doubt, by the suspicion that the man she loves is drifting away from her.
A very real character, and Vivien Leigh portrays her beautifully.
Julien Duvivier co-scripted and directed Anna Karenina, and does a good job of it: he cuts out the extraneous bits of the story and focuses only on the story of Anna Karenina herself. And this he does with sensitivity, bringing out the character really well. I also liked Duvivier’s direction, which makes inspired use of silence. There are many instances in the film where more is said through silence and an expression than through dialogue.
What I didn’t like, and comparisons with the novel:
To begin with, a comparison with Tolstoy’s novel. Anna Karenina is a much more sprawling book than the film depicts. Besides the lives of Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, there is also, in almost equal part, the life of Levin and the woman he loves, Kitty Shcherbatsky. Levin, in fact, is a major character in the book, though he very rarely crosses paths with Anna. But Levin’s life, his interest in his countryside estate and the peasants who help cultivate his land, his love for Kitty, and his reluctant forays into politics: all of these form an important part of Anna Karenina.
In addition, Tolstoy’s story goes into other areas: there are long sections where characters discuss politics, religion, art, agricultural reforms, and more.
But since a book is a very different kettle of fish, I did not really expect the cinematic Anna Karenina to be like the book. I was perfectly happy, then, to have the film focus on the triangle (such as it is) between Anna, Karenin and Vronsky. And on that count, the film does justice to the book: it’s able to portray Anna, her relationships, her conflicts, her loneliness and insecurities very effectively.
That said, I do wish Duvivier (or the times, really, since I’m guessing he was merely following the norms of film-making back then) had not shied away from showing Anna’s getting pregnant. In the book, this is what probably comes across as the first startlingly scandalous aspect of the affair: that Anna gets pregnant with Vronsky’s baby, nearly dies in childbirth, but goes on to bring up the baby (whom she never really loves as much as Sergei). In the film, Anna is pregnant, though it never shows, and the fact that she gives birth comes like a bolt of the blue. What’s more, it is never even really indicated that the baby is Vronsky’s; plus, very conveniently, it’s a still birth.
Also, given that Levin is such an important character in the original book, I was disappointed to see him relegated to such a brief and inconsequential part in the film. Levin is so minor a character, that (barring the fact that he is in love with Kitty, who is in love with Vronsky), he may as well not have been there in the film.
But, by and large, this is a film I liked. While it is, of course, not the same as the book, it’s a fairly good adaptation: it manages to convey the essence of the book very well, the very human-ness of the characters Tolstoy portrays with so much sensitivity and empathy.