Anna Karenina (2009) dir. Sergei Solovyov
Starring: Tatyana Drubich, Oleg Yankovskiy and Yaroslav Boyko
By Greg Klymkiw
Hailed as one of the great novels of all-time, Lev Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” has been adapted into so many film and television versions, one wonders if we will ever get the ultimate cinematic rendering of this great story. It has not happened yet, and this new Russian mini-series, which makes its North American premiere this weekend in Toronto at the Kino/Art Film Festival, is blessed with sumptuous production design and excellent performances, but is ultimately, at its best, not much more than watchable.
This oft-told tale of tragic romance, infidelity and social commentary is, on the page, an extremely complex work, yet when one boils it down to its essentials, Tolstoy hung the layers of the world he created on a very solid and simple narrative coat rack and delivered a subtle stylistic use of language to create the feeling of a steam engine hurtling its characters in steady forward motion with all the requisite jostles, twists, turns and abrupt, though always temporary stops.
The simple love triangle involves Anna, the title character (played beautifully in this version by Tatyana Drubich) and how she escapes a loveless marriage to the bureaucrat Aleksei (Oleg Yankovskiy) when she meets and begins a passionate, scandalous affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Yaroslav Boyko – definitely dashing, supremely charming and a most excellent choice for this role). A brief reconciliation with her husband eventually gives way to a return to the Count and the two lovers are ostracized by the society they both were once an integral part of. Anna, fearing the Count is unfaithful to her, eventually, and in despair, hurtles herself in front of an oncoming train.
That, in a nutshell, is the narrative coat hanger and after seeing many film and television adaptations of the novel, I am inclined to think that the best attempts to render the story visually are the ones where the filmmakers do not stray too far from the simplicity of Tolstoy’s dramatic story structure and leave the dense novelistic complexities aside. To date, my favourite versions of this tale remain David O. Selznick’s production of the Clarence Brown-directed film starring Greta Garbo and Alexander Korda’s production of the Julien Duvivier-directed rendering that stars Vivien Leigh.
Oddly enough, it is the two Russian versions I’ve seen that I like least. The 1967 Mosfilm production of “Anna Karenina” is not without merit, especially with its elephantine 70mm treatment, but it feels like a half-epic; not long enough to flesh out the aspects of the novel usually left out of the film adaptations and long enough to be tedious. This might have a lot to do with the disjointedness of the film and the fact that it’s caught in the horrible middle of including too much and not enough.
This, of course, does not seem to be the problem with Solovyov’s TV mini-series version. In many ways, it might actually be the ultimate version in terms of remaining as faithful to the events of Tolstoy’s novel. And though it is well made and is endowed with an adherence to the text, there is something lacking in the medium it presents itself in. With an episodic structure that features numerous fades-to-black and fades-up-from-black for what appear to be outs and ins around commercial breaks, it lacks the kind of bigger-than-life sweep one wants from the story. While the production seems perfectly serviceable for television consumption, it just does not have what it takes to raise itself to the stylistic heights of either Brown or Duvivier’s versions which both have the stylistic, very theatrical (big-screen) and expressionistic flourishes of cinema.
It is interesting that late in life Tolstoy lamented the fact that he had yet to find a medium of artistic expression that would be ideal for what he really wanted to do. I always find this lament so strange given his ground-breaking literary achievements, but it is a fact that he did indeed feel this way and even dabbled with using the stage to create a multi-dimensional rendering of his prose. Alas, he found that the proscenium was also too constricting. When he finally realized that the medium of film was just what the doctor ordered for presenting stories in a truly multi-dimensional platform, he was in his final years and the medium was still at its earliest stages.
I look back at most of the film and television adaptations of Tolstoy’s work, including this new version of "Anna Karenina", and it is with a considerable degree of wistfulness that I dream and wonder what magic Lev Tolstoy might have wrought if God had given us another century of this great artist to ply his trade as an auteur of cinema.
For more information on Toronto's KinoArt Festival Nov 5-8) visit: www.kinoartfestival.com