Tuesday, 24 September 2013

ANNA KARENINA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Of all people, the Russians can never get Anna Karenina right.

Anna Karenina (2009) **½
dir. Sergei Solovyov
Starring: Tatyana Drubich, Oleg Yankovskiy and Yaroslav Boyko

Review 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, whilest blessed with sumptuous production design and decent performances, 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 (though don't get me started on the pretentious Joe Wright/Tom Stoppard version from 2012). The 1967 Mosfilm production 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.

This all said, I had an engaging discourse on Anna Karenina with a number of talented screenwriters over at Karen Walton's writing forum "inkcanada" which, got me to thinking about how, what and why a truly great film adaptation of this kept eluding us. Writer Lisa Hunter seemed to think that the claustrophobic aspects of Tolstoy's tale were always ignored by the filmmakers and that an approach to the material similar to that which was employed by director Frank Perry and screenwriter Eleanor Perry on Diary of a Mad Housewife might be just what the doctor ordered. I can't say I disagree completely. The prolific husband and wife team of Frank/Eleanor yielded some of the best American films of the 60s and 70s including The Swimmer (hunky Burt Lancaster bedding down suburban housewives as he makes a tour of backyard pools), David and Lisa (the classic teen-nutbars-in-love drama with Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin), Last Summer (the ultimate sad swinging' threesome picture of the hippie era) and, of course, Ladybug Ladybug (still one of the most powerful indictments of nuclear war ever made). Thinking on the matter, I believe Ms. Hunter's assertion that the sort of style and approach the Perrys brought to Mad Housewife (and ALL their work, frankly) might well have been the ideal approach to something like Anna Karenina.

In spite of this, though, I'm still holding out for a Russian to do this picture properly. No offence to my non-Slavic types, but there is something about the soul, the ethos, the DNA of Slavs (or at least Europeans from especially repressed, patriarchal cultures) that makes them the ideal choices in translating great works of Eastern European literature to the screen (and you also don't get better actors in the world than thespians of the Russian/Ukrainian/Polish/Ashkenazy persuasions).

Interestingly, filmmaker, Rama makes the point that there have been no (and yes, even to my normally encyclopaedic film geekery) decent adaptations of Karenina by women. That said, I suspect if the brilliant Ukrainian director Larissa Shepitko hadn't died at such a tragically young age, we might well have seen her tackle Karenina. Her feature output was limited to the astonishingly moving feminist (well before its time) Wings (aka Krylya) and one of the greatest, most savage anti-war films - ever - The Ascent. Both of these are imbued with an especially "Slavic" sense of claustrophobia which, as Lisa pointed out, would have been ideally suited to Tolstoy's narrative.

However, I do think Anna Karenina NEEDS the "external glamour", but it needs to (a) be there in contrast to the more stifling qualities of the work and (b) to be deftly handled so that the "open" sense of glamour takes on stifling qualities. With The Ascent, Shepitko rooted us on the snowy Belarus expanse of its WWII battlegrounds and yet, she focused quite brilliantly on the gruelling and, yes, claustrophobic sense of being pinned down by enemy bullets.

For me, there's no ifs, ands or buts. It takes a Slavic soul to dive into Tolstoy - or, at least, someone who understands the Slavic soul in order to render its qualities in universal ways. I think that if Sergei Paradjanov (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) had had an interest in such stories, his poetic (and Gay) qualities might have been ideally suited to Anna Karenina as frankly, so would have Olexandr (Earth/Zemlya) Dovzhenko's. Alas, most of the Russians who've tackled Karenina have been of the bargain basement Grigiori Chukrai (Ballad of a Soldier) variety and more suited to classical styles of cinematic storytelling. Worse, of course, are the relatively contemporary Russian TV directors who are little more than style-bereft camera jockeys not dissimilar to those who primarily work in American/Canadian television.

This, of course, is why I object to ANY assertion that the miniseries might be an ideal form for the tale. Aside from the potential of being saddled with a by-the-numbers director, the very structure of miniseries teleplays would be ill-suited to the material and render the scope of the story to its detriment - placing too much emphasis on the cliff-hanging rather than philosophical/poetical qualities. I think theatrical approaches, but of the more epic variety (Bondarchuk's umpteen hour theatrical version of Tolstoy's War and Peace being a good example) would be the ideal way to go. Even the theatrical sensibilities of someone like Philip Kaufman seemed better suited to the epic sweep of CHARACTER which, he demonstrated so ably in his almost idiotically romantic adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

As far as Brits go, they've done their fair share of fine, but still insubstantial TV version and I maintain THEATRICAL sensibilities are the ideal approach. The ideal LIVING contemporary choice to direct a great version of Anna Karenina would probably be Terence Davies. His film adaptation of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth still seems to be one of the greatest approaches to the "stifling" worlds of patriarchal society and their effect upon independent-minded women. That film, along with The Deep Blue Sea, place Davies in the same powerful pantheon of such subject matter as Carl Dreyer (most notably The Passion of Joan of Arc and Gertrud).

Ah well, a great film of Anna Karenina will still come. Hopefully it will be in my lifetime. Maybe also in my lifetime we'll see a truly great adaptation of Tolstoy's Resurrection (with apologies to Rouben Mamoullian's close-but-no-cigar MGM epic from 1934 and a really cool Solares-directed version from Mexico!!!!). At the end of the day, though, discussing Tolstoy's cinema-ready literature as opposed to what passes for writing these days seems a worthy pursuit - even if this 2009 Russian version seems a few bricks short of the load the tale needs.