Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1997)

Film review: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1997), directed by Bernard Rose

Set in a time before Russia was the Soviet Union, Anna Karenina tells the story of two couples. Or more, depending on how you look at it. It begins with Levin (Alfred Molina, who I have to admit having a soft spot for) proposing to Kitty (Mia Kirshner). She rejects him because she’s set her heart on Vronsky (Sean Bean). However, as soon as Vronsky sets eyes on Anna Karenina (Sophie Marceau), he has eyes for no other.

So. What follows is Vronsky stalking Anna, even though she is already married to the considerably older Karenin (James Fox) and has a very dear son. It matters not. What Vronsky wants, Vronsky must get. Not that she puts up much of a struggle, admittedly. They become lovers and shit happens.

Meanwhile, Levin is living his life and still carries a torch for Kitty. And now and then, we see Fiona Shaw, Phyllida Law and Danny Huston, but most often, it’s all about the setting.

Honestly, I’ve never had a Tolstoy encounter before and I wasn’t taken by this. I watched it once when I was on my laptop, so realistically, I didn’t really follow the story very well. That’s why I decided to watch it again, without distractions. Or at least, with just the one: putting on a firelog in the fireplace because it’s surprisingly cold inside for July. As it turned out, I hadn’t really missed anything by being on the computer.

The only truly stand-out thing in this production is the Russian scenery, the gorgeous period clothing and opulent palaces. It’s like your eyes are treated to a great, big visual cake; luscious, rich and full of cream. Absolutely delightful! The acting is okay, Sean Bean is handsome in a uniform – just a little amused that we only ever see him in that one costume, except for in one scene where he gets his kit off completely.

Anna I wasn’t keen on. She might be bored by her older husband, but I couldn’t bring myself to sympathise with her misfortunes because she brought them on all by herself. Sure, Vronsky stalked her – doesn’t mean you have to give in! Just seemed a bit weird, to be honest.

If I’ve understood it correctly, Levin is the narrator of the book (he is the narrator here too), but other than that, he doesn’t seem to do a lot. It’s a side story that seems to have very little to do with the titular character. As a character, I love him. He seems like such a nice guy, and if I had to choose between him and Vronsky, I’d take the guy who prefers the solitude of the countryside any day. He isn’t a creepy stalker either.

Everything feels a bit hacked up and disjointed, as if nothing ever gets explained properly. I know my attention span isn’t the greatest, but I tried! And still, I scratched my head wondering about the time jumps, and what had just happened. It runs for 108 minutes, but it feels as if something’s missing and that it just drags on. The end, and how it ended, felt like a relief. And I’m sure Anna Karenina wouldn’t be the classic that it is if it was truly like this adaptation. Something must have gone wrong somewhere.

And for that reason, I give it a 3 out of 5 broken marriages. I would’ve said 2, but the architecture, décor and clothing were what kept me watching, and they were even easier on the eye than Sean Bean and Alfred Molina put together.

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