Sweeping landscapes, ornate, golden ballrooms and meaningful, brooding gazes are at the forefront of Bernard Rose’s Anna Karenina. It must be rather a tall order to do justice to one of the world’s literary masterpieces. Especially following a tirade of other cinema adaptations – this is the 11th Anna Karenina film since 1914. I’m not sure Rose achieved his goal. The depth and complexity of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has gone astray, misplaced perhaps in the grandiose and opulent nature of the film.
The film opens with the narrator, Konstantin Levin (Alfred Molina, The Da Vinci Code) being chased by wolves across a snowy expanse of forest. He is plagued by nightmares brought on by the despair of loneliness and unrequited love. “The fear of dying without ever having known true love was greater than the fear of death itself”.
He introduces us to the object of his affections, the young, sparkling Princess Kitty (Mia Kirshner). But she isn’t interested in his hopeless devotion. Her heart already belongs to the dashing Count Vronsky (Sean Bean, The Lord of the Rings). Despondent, Levin returns to the countryside to try and forget her.
Meanwhile, the beautiful, seductive (and married) Anna Karenina (Sophie Marceau, Braveheart) enters the movie. She too longs for a love that will complete her. She meets Count Vronsky by chance and the two are instantly drawn to each other. Poor Kitty is dropped like a hot potato.
Count Vronsky follows Anna to St Petersburg and they begin a passionate affair. Yet their relationship is doomed from the start. The double standards of the upper classes are evident; Vronsky is still regarded as a bachelor but Anna is shunned by society.
It’s not light viewing by any means. And if you are unfamiliar with the story, it’s a struggle to make sense of what’s happening. The plot skips along quick smart but lacks the depth of Tolstoy’s novel. One of the key themes, social dissent amongst the working class, is barely mentioned. There’s hardly a disgruntled peasant in sight.
The characters, too, are missing a richness of detail. Tolstoy’s Anna is one of literature’s most brilliant figures, complex and tragic. Yet I can’t help seeing a foolish woman making some naïve choices. Of course it’s going to end badly.
I am also unconvinced of Anna and Vronsky’s initial passion. Apart from Marceau’s smoldering almond eyes and Bean’s eager attentions, the part where they actually fall in love seems to have been overlooked. They have only been together a couple of minutes when suddenly everyone’s scandalized and disapproving, and the doormen are twittering.
The side-plot of Levin and Kitty only adds to the film’s disjointed structure. After the first few scenes, they are quickly booted off centre stage. Their relationship then plays out in short snippets interjected at random throughout the film.
An odd assortment of accents ranging from working class English to American to French adds to the confusion. Anna and her brother Stiva (Danny Huston) don’t even share a nationality.
Yet while the film wavered in its convictions, I enjoyed it. Sophie Marceau is a classically beautiful Anna and her descent into paranoia and madness well played. I also have a soft spot for the good-looking Sean Bean, who gives a solid performance as her debonair though somewhat insensitive swain.
The cinematography is grandiose, decadent and beautifully shot, from the green summer fields to the great floating chunks of ice in the frozen ponds of St Petersburg. Filmed entirely on location, it makes the most of several historical mansions, including the Winter Palace.
The elaborate costumes of the Russian noble classes are also faithfully replicated. Women wear full skirts with tiny waists and detailed hairstyles adorned with jewels, while the men sport gold-braided military uniforms. The musical score also adds to the grandeur, featuring Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and performed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bernard Rose’s Anna Karenina may be best suited to fans of period dramas and viewers who enjoy a good romantic tragedy. Tolstoy buffs however, may find it lacking in substance.
Director: Bernard Rose
Cast: Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina and Sean Bean
DVD release: February 2013 (re-release)