Film and TV

Taming Leo

When Masterpiece Theatre aired a multi-part Anna Karenina to mark the novel's centennial in 1977, series producer Joan Sullivan said, "I think that great stories [like Tolstoy's] are what the series is about." Now Bernard Rose, the writer-director of the new movie version, talks about how lucky he was to discover "this marvelous story as an adult." But in an adaptation, the story should be no more than what Henry James called the donnee--the base an artist works from to achieve his own individual expression. When an adaptation is faithful to the original without evoking its texture or spirit, the "story" gets reduced to a plot that's not so great or marvelous, at times not even explicable.

That happened at the start of Masterpiece Theatre's Anna Karenina (it took a couple of episodes to settle down), and it happens throughout this flamboyant movie, starring Sophie Marceau as Anna and Sean Bean as Vronsky, her lover. Taking Tolstoy's tome at a gallop, Rose tramples on social observations and psychological subtleties.

Rose's title may be Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, but his approach resembles a Modern Romance comic book. Anna and Vronsky meet when he picks up his mother at the Moscow railroad station. (Gasp!) They fall helplessly in love at a dance. (Ooh!) He intercepts her during her return trip to St. Petersburg. (Sigh!) Her husband, Karenin, sees her react with anguish when Vronsky's horse stumbles during a steeplechase. (Oof!)

At other times it's like a CIA thriller, with title cards that hurtle us from Moscow to St. Petersburg to summer homes and country estates, then on to Italy when Anna decides to throw off everything except Vronsky. She leaves her adored son behind, failing to reckon that there's no future for her in a life founded solely on romance.

So little characterization emerges in these breathless hundred or so minutes that when it does, it seems accidental, a tribute to isolated actors. I felt more sympathetic to that high-handed, bantering spouse, old Alexi Karenin, than to Anna or Vronsky, because James Fox wrings more poignancy from the man's on-and-off tenderness than Marceau and Bean do from the lovers' passion.

Anna Karenina appears to be a trap for scriptwriters. Enraptured with the idea of dramatizing the most beloved of all fictional works about adultery, they tend to go for classic set pieces--the railroad deaths that bracket the main action, the grand ball, the catastrophic horserace, and so on--without realizing that when you cut them to the bone to make them fit, you create a skeleton. Here, watching the domesticated Anna make an entrance in a jet-black ball gown, a viewer senses that she's supposed to be transformed into a picture of erotic radiance without really feeling that she is. Fictional sequences so indelible that they've become archetypal turn into random anecdotes in a cinematic soap opera. Without a proper setup, touches straight out of Tolstoy seem inept, confusing or merely garish. When Anna becomes a dope addict over Vronsky's restlessness and boredom, Rose washes the screen in hellish red.

The writer-director remains true to the novel's core relationships: the conventional marriage of Anna's philandering brother Stiva (Danny Huston) to the faithful Dolly (Saskia Wickham); the affective gap between the emotional Anna and her propriety-bound husband, Karenin; and the trou-bled love of the self-doubting rural idealist Constantin Levin (Alfred Molina) for Dolly's impressionable younger sister, Kitty (Mia Kirshner), who admires Levin deeply yet is infatuated with the dashing Vronsky. A flirtatious military dandy, Vronsky is the joker in the pack--he initially upsets Levin's pursuit of Kitty and winds up destroying Anna's life (and his own).

In Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (as opposed to Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina), the author is refreshingly brisk when he introduces the three couples. He begins the 900-page book in medias res: Stiva's affair with a governess endangers his and Dolly's marriage; Anna comes to her brother's rescue. But Rose is inordinately impatient and turns Tolstoy's novel into a literary obstacle course. The script galumphs over hurdles, and the camera whooshes toward the finish line. As a friend of mine said, "It's like he's tearing out pages from the book and flinging them in your face."

Huston brings the comforting conviviality of a somewhat rusty blade to Stiva--you can believe he's Anna's brother because he reflects her grace and warmth. After a shaky introduction, Molina's Levin develops an apt gravity, a dogged presence; but I enjoyed listening to his new audio-book version more than I did watching him in this movie. Although Rose has commended himself for highlighting Levin as Tolstoy's surrogate quester for the meaning of life, the moviemaker doesn't give himself the space to do it properly. Levin narrates, courts Kitty, jousts with and mourns for a dissipated brother, and generally serves either to illustrate a moral or to state one, like an ineffectual Jiminy Cricket.

And what of Anna, a character so challenging that in the sound era, only two of the greatest screen actresses--Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh--have tried to play her on the big screen (and only Garbo has succeeded)? She's enacted here by the pretty Marceau, whose melting expressions are about as ineffable as a model's in a perfume ad. When she and Bean's muddled Vronsky are supposed to strike sparks, you see them struggle to work the flint. James Agee summed up the allure and the difficulty of Anna's character when he called her "one of fiction's most vehemently average women." Her passion ultimately defeats instead of energizes her; she's unable to transcend the situation of a fallen woman. She can't face down a complacent, claustrophobic high society, and she can't envision a way of accommodating her love for Vronsky and her love for and duty toward her son, even at the moments when Karenin is relatively flexible. She's an all-or-nothing gal, in the best and worst senses. Since Rose hasn't adequately traced her psychological parabola through the strangulating circles of the Russian aristocracy, there's not enough weight to her declaration that Vronsky is all that remains for her after she gives herself to him. Marceau seems stranded in a romance novel, not an epic that digs inside the excitement and perils of romance.

Going from music videos to the psychological horror of Paperhouse, the Grand Guignol of Candyman, and the florid excesses of that riotous Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved, Rose wants to be the next Michael Powell, translating nineteenth-century artistic grandeur (from theater, ballet and opera as well as the novel) into the kinesthetic sweep of the cinema. Unfortunately, he's more like Ken Russell, the petit-maitre of cheap effects. His wild lunges are occasionally beautiful--there's a gorgeous montage of Levin losing himself with his peasants in a bout of synchronized scything--but they rarely connect. In one daring prolonged shot, he films Kitty gliding into a ballroom and into a dance master's arms. The effect is exhilarating for a second or two, until you notice that the dancers' movements don't match the music. Rose slops Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev all over the soundtrack, and in general, he does them a disservice. He makes these composers seem lachrymose or melodramatic by extracting only the most obvious themes or climaxes from their intricate compositions. He does the same to Tolstoy.

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Written and directed by Bernard Rose, from Leo Tolstoy's novel. With Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina and James Fox.

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Michael Sragow