This is the 6th adaptation of Anna Karenina that I’ve seen so far.
For years, I had an inexplicable obsession with the story and watched it over and over again, in different adaptations, but didn’t read Tolstoy’s novel till I was 20. I had seen the 1935 version (Greta Garbo), 1948 (Vivien Leigh), 1967 (Tatiana Samoilova), 1997 (Sophie Marceau), 2012 (Keira Knightley), and just watched the 2013 European production, written by Francesco Arlanch and directed by Christian Duguay, with Vittoria Puccini in the title role.
What do I think?
Let’s start with the positives. First of all, this version is alternatively presented as a two-part miniseries or a single film of 3 hours 15 minutes, and the filmmakers try to have a balance between Anna’s story and Levin’s story. The novel, in spite of its title, is not only about Anna, but most adaptations tend to sacrifice the story of Levin and Kitty. The film also pays more attention to Karenin, who is often neglected.
Secondly, I do like Vittoria Puccini as Anna. I cannot make any fair comparison between her and Greta Garbo or Vivien Leigh because it’s so long ago—all I vaguely remember is that Greta Garbo is too imposing, and Vivien Leigh has a mischievous quality and quick way of speaking that I think aren’t right for the role. Vittoria Puccini is very attractive, and she has the charm, the sensuality, and the passionate quality that Tatiana Samoilova lacks—Tatiana Samoilova, from what I remember, is too stiff, too dry, too serious. She’s also better than Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley, especially the latter, who is too bony, too sure of herself, and nothing like Tolstoy’s Anna.
Vittoria Puccini conveys well the conflicts in Anna, the passion, the pleasure, the guilt, the shame, the doubt, the jealousy, the insecurities in the character.
As Karenin, Benjamin Sadler is all right. He’s not quite the Karenin on the page, but a film adaptation could never convey the psychological depth and complexity of Tolstoy’s novels. The general problem with early adaptations of Anna Karenina is that Karenin is often portrayed as a monster, then the 2012 film swung to the other extreme and made Karenin (Jude Law) too nice, and more attractive than Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). Benjamin Sadler doesn’t come across as so cold, stern, stuffy, and duty-bound as the Karenin in my head, but at least he does portray him as always talking about work and thinking about duty, and at the same time having his vulnerabilities. He plays Karenin as a man not used to expressing his feelings, and the film focuses more on him than on Vronsky, which makes an interesting approach.
Santiago Cabrera as Vronsky is good-looking. Lou de Laâge as Kitty and Max von Thun as Levin are all right.
But the 2013 film has problems, and I’m going to complain.
First of all, it has the same disease that afflicts most modern films: the fear of staying still. The camera is always moving, often for no reason—many shots wobble as though filmed with a gimbal—and they keep cutting every 4-5 seconds or so. It is very distracting. The screenwriter Francesco Arlanch pays more attention to characters and aspects often neglected in other adaptations, and with Vittoria Puccini’s performance, this version has the potential to be good, but Christian Duguay (the director) doesn’t allow a shot to linger, doesn’t allow the audience to feel with the characters. The constant cuts, combined with the constant camera movements, distract from the emotions of the scenes.
Another technical problem is that it is dubbed, even though the actors speak English—perhaps the director wants a consistent English accent for the European cast—and the dubbing is rather quiet so sometimes dialogue is drowned out by music or other sounds. But that’s not always a bad thing, as some of the dialogue is quite atrocious.
I also have other complaints. If the film should be praised for giving more screentime to Karenin, it must be criticised for reducing Vronsky—not only in the sense that the character ends up being less prominent than Karenin, but also in the way the script reduces Vronsky to a shallow, frivolous character—and it is the fault of the script, not Santiago Cabrera’s. As a man, Tolstoy’s Vronsky may not be particularly deep or thoughtful, but he is ennobled by his love for Anna. Before meeting Anna, he may have been a frivolous man playing with Kitty’s feelings, but he does truly love Anna.
The 2013 Vronsky is different. He says to Betsy, more than once, that it’s just a game. And when Anna tells him she’s pregnant, he has a pause, then says:
“It’s better this way.”
“What we have between us is no longer a game... I love you. Leave Karenin, and be with me...”
In the novel, it has never been a game. At the beginning, Vronsky may not realise how serious it is, but he never treats it as a game.
Compare it to the words of Tolstoy’s Vronsky:
“‘Yes,’ he said, resolutely approaching her. ‘Neither you nor I looked on our union as an amusement, and now our fate is sealed. We must end’—he went on, looking round—‘this falsehood in which we are living.’” (P.2, ch.22)
That is the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude. Here’s the same line translated by Rosamund Bartlett:
“‘Yes,’ he said decisively, going up to her. ‘Neither you nor I have looked on our relationship as a trivial amusement, and now our fate is decided. It is essential to put an end’, he said, looking round, ‘to the lie we are living.’”
The line in the film is significantly different—it changes the relationship between Anna and Vronsky, and changes his character.
Worst of all, the 2013 film downplays Anna’s death. Vittoria Puccini portrays well the conflicts in Anna, so the film does an injustice to both Tolstoy and the actress—Anna’s suicide scene is intercut with the scene of Levin waiting for his baby’s birth—then Anna throws herself under the train, leaving little emotional impact. Not only so, the film diminishes its impact on Vronsky, whereas in the novel, Vronsky is devastated and joins the war, clearly as a way of killing himself. Other people move on with their lives after Anna’s death, Vronsky doesn’t.
The film in a way reduces her affair to something trivial, and her death utterly meaningless.
Another thing I don’t like is that the film makes Dolly more prominent but doesn’t realise the potential. Tolstoy doesn’t only contrast Anna with Kitty, but also with Dolly: Anna’s is the tragedy of a woman who leaves her husband, and Dolly’s is the tragedy of a woman who doesn’t. Dolly says in the film that Anna saves her marriage, but what kind of marriage is it? In this version, Oblonsky is reduced to next to nothing whilst Dolly gets more screentime, compared to some other adaptations, but the scene of her catching her husband cheating and the scene of her getting insulted over the unpaid bills aren’t enough to convey the suffering, the humiliation and loneliness and unhappiness in her marriage.
It almost feels as though the filmmakers are saying that Anna saves Dolly’s marriage but destroys her own, for nothing.
Should you watch it? Perhaps, if you want to see a different approach to the story. There are good things in it.
If anything, it makes me want to revisit the novel.