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Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina(1948)

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Garbo is the filmed Anna Karenina everyone remembers. But Vivien Leigh's Anna Karenina (1948) should not be forgotten, even though it largely is. Overshadowed by the Oscar®-winning twin peaks of Leigh's film career – Gone with the Wind (1939) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – it's handsomely crafted, but emotionally undersupplied, more successful at advancing themes than passions. Director and co-screenwriter Julien Duvivier wanted to reset Tolstoy's landmark novel in France, but producer Alexander Korda, no newcomer to lavish costume drama, insisted it be returned to its Russian setting. And so everyone at Shepperton Studios was swathed in furs and brocades, looking like lampshades during a hotter than usual English summer as artificial snow beat against locomotives hurtling the characters between St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Garbo was luminous. Leigh is lustrous. Henri Alekan, the great cinematographer, makes Leigh's Anna pearly. Even as dreary rain beats against the windows of a room, echoing her unhappiness as her lover's passion wanes, a shaft of sunlight illuminates her face. In the film's penultimate moment, when Anna seems almost relieved to have chosen to throw herself in front of a train, Alekan has her look up into a swaying railway station lantern when, at last drained of agitation, she croons, "Why not turn out the lights when there is nothing more to be seen?" It's the opposite of the shaky dolly shot Alekan used to convey her romantic swoon at locking eyes earlier at the same train station with Count Vronsky, the lover she didn't realize would prove callow.

The film understands, as not all comers to Tolstoy's novel do, that it isn't a romance about star-crossed lovers – as the film's promotional material describes it. Launched by the actual suicide of the rejected mistress of a landowner Tolstoy knew, Tolstoy reimagined that event as a story about a woman who thinks she's entering into a passionate union with a man who's bringing to it the depth and intensity she is. Kieron Moore, the Irish-born actor who plays her military lover and enjoyed a long career into the '70s, hasn't got a chance here. He comes on strong, manly and melty-eyed, then retreats when he realizes he can't live in the world he wants to keep living in when Anna's stiff-backed husband won't divorce her and free her to remarry. What's remarkable about the book, published in novel form in 1876 after being serialized in newspapers, is the ruthless clarity of Tolstoy's grasp, in a romantic age, that sex withers without context. The passion here is short-lived, at least on Vronsky's part, because it has no place to go in a gilded birdcage society.

It was a theme to be explored by Ibsen and Shaw and precursor after precursor to women's lib – gifted, intelligent women living lives of benign incarceration in domesticity, not being allowed to enter a world where men had many outlets and essentially lived their lives outside the home. We see this in Anna's lightweight brother, Stefan (Hugh Dempster), whose superficial extramarital fling is got over with Anna's help and social deftness. He isn't playing for keeps. Neither is Vronsky, who loves Anna, but doesn't want to be greatly inconvenienced by it. Anna does play for keeps, and it costs her. We can only speculate on the degree to which Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder, identified with Anna as it became clear that she was literally about to be left out in the cold. The old Spanish-speaking woman selling flowers for the dead and foreshadowing Blanche DuBois' death in the 1951 Streetcar is uncannily foreshadowed by the hallucinatory figure of a bearded old man spooking Anna, a similar harbinger of death. And of course Leigh had played a woman who ended her life by jumping under the wheels of a bus in Waterloo Bridge (1940).

The production did not enjoy a smooth launch. Leigh and Korda had hoped that Laurence Olivier, Leigh's lover, then husband, would play Vronsky. He begged off, claiming he couldn't, owing to preparations for his Hamlet. Perhaps the fact that Vronsky is so innately unsympathetic influenced his decision. As played by Moore, handsome but wooden, Vronsky all but evaporates as the film proceeds, given little more than irritability and a trapped feeling to play against Anna's desperation and still-grand passion. Karenin, Anna's cuckolded husband, comes close to stealing the film with the shadings brought to that seemingly unsympathetic prig by the masterful Ralph Richardson, who used Karenin's pain to make his attitude seem to result from more than wounded ego and revenge for being publicly humiliated, especially when he reverses roles with Vronsky after Anna falls ill, and Karenin takes her back – only to have her run off with Vronsky again, finally hardening his attitude.

The adaptation – Guy Morgan helped Duvivier and Jean Anouilh bring it from France to a cinematic Russia – deftly trims problematic material from the novel. Wisely, it makes Karenin's actions seem to arise from hurt, not, as in the novel, Karenin falling under the sway of a fraudulent mystic. With the arrogance of the rich land-owning aristocrat he was and the genuine angst Tolstoy felt over his existential predicament and religious and political idealism, the great writer spent his life rewriting Christianity – becoming revered as the moral model for Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. There must have been times when his playing at being one of his own peasants became a little much. Duvivier and the film allude deftly to this in the figure of the novel's autobiographical Tolstoy figure, narrator and moral pilgrim – Levin (Niall MacGinness). When the young princess (Sally Ann Howes) Vronsky dumped to be with Anna, swallows her pride and journeys to Levin's estate to tell him she'll marry him after turning him down, Levin is seen working in the fields with his peasants, dressed in muzhik gear!

Anna Karenina is able to use a lot of visual shorthand for the stifling society where human feeling was subordinated to social position and privilege. Most of the points are made with suffocatingly ornate décor and costumes Leigh, feeling insecure, clashed frequently with costume designer Cecil Beaton, according to her biographer, Anne Edwards. On one occasion, when she complained that her gloves were too small, he replied that her hands were too large! On another occasion, when Leigh, famous for her tiny waist, complained that her corsets were squeezing her to death, it was discovered that they had been put on upside down! The uncomfortable fit served as a metaphor for the film. Set against the heavy décor, the overdressed characters seem part of it, not living, breathing people. Fatally, the film too often becomes an analogue of the stilted society the Christian anarchist Tolstoy was castigating on behalf of a Russia deciding whether to modernize or cling to old authoritarian models. "Bringing new passion and emotion to the greatest love story ever penned," gushed the film's posters. If only!

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by Jay Carr