“I seem to be falling down the abyss.”
This Soviet version of Anna Karenina is the best film adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel to date. Directed by Aleksandr Zarkhi, Anna Karenina is a masterpiece of Russian realism, wonderfully cast, and beautifully acted, and the result, is a film that’s true to the spirit of Tolstoy’s novel.
Anna Karenina (Tatyana Samojlova) is married to a much older, stodgy politician, Karenin (Nikolai Gritsenko). Together, they have one son. Anna travels from St. Petersburg, and upon arrival in Moscow, she meets Vronsky (Vasili Lanovoy), the son of her traveling companion. Although, Anna and Vronsky only catch a glimpse of one another, the chemistry is immediate. They meet in Moscow and begin a passionate affair.
The film handles the subject of adultery and sexuality quite marvelously. There are clearly different standards for men and women, and when the film begins, Anna’s brother, Stiva (Yuri Yakovlev) is in domestic hot water with his wife Dolly (Iya Savvina) for his disruptive affair with his children’s governess. With his wife threatening to leave, Stiva begs Anna to intervene, and she does so successfully. Stiva’s main lesson from the affair is to take his peccadilloes outside of the home–and Dolly turns a blind eye while imagining that he’s ‘learned his lesson.’ Vronksy has an affair with Anna, but is still able to move about quite smoothly in society–although Anna very quickly becomes a social pariah. One of Anna’s sophisticated acquaintances attempts to shield Anna and steer her towards more socially acceptable behaviour on several occasions. According to Russian society, the key to adultery is discretion, and Anna, to her credit and to her destruction, is not capable of deception.
The plight of the peasants is subtly woven into the film’s background–whether it’s a peasant severed in half by a train, or peasants wandering the countryside as they beg for work, the film hints at the plight of the lower classes set against the affairs, balls and soirees of their wealthy ‘masters’.
The film contains some fantastic scenes–at a ball, the camera whirls along with the dancers while the racetrack scenes illustrate Vronsky’s inherent character weakness. The scene when Karenin collects Anna from the railway station conveys the suffocating nausea of the Karenins’ marriage. Consummate politician Karenin can’t open his mouth without making a speech to some imagined audience. And when Anna confesses her affair to her husband, there’s the sound of what seems to be knives sharpening in the background. This ominous sound is the perfect backdrop to her confession. The noise, however, is the sound of scythes during harvest, and this becomes apparent in the next farming scene, but the addition of the sounds overlapping from one scene to another is a stroke of brilliance on the part of the director.
As for the DVD quality…the Kino release is a 2 disc set. The main problem regarding quality is that colours are washed out. In one scene that takes place at the ball, Kitty’s hair appears to be silver, but a few minutes later, it’s dark brown. Some of the extra features (including subtitles) are a little difficult to negotiate at first. That said, there are some really excellent extra features here: Thoughts about Leo Tolstoy (21 minutes), Chronikle–11 minutes of footage of Tolstoy, The Making of Anna Karenina (3 minutes), video interviews, Leo Tolstoy Biography & Photo Album, cast & crew biographies/ filmographies. The viewer has the choice of Russian, English dubbed, French dubbed, with optional English French and Spanish subtitles.