A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Anna Karenina (Julien Duvivier, 1948)

If Greta Garbo is the best reason for seeing Clarence Brown's 1935 version of Anna Karenina, then Ralph Richardson is the best argument for watching this one. As Karenin, Richardson demonstrates an understanding of the character that Basil Rathbone failed to display in the earlier version. In a performance barely distinguished from his usual haughty villain roles, Rathbone played Karenin as a cuckold with a cold heart. Richardson wants us to see what Tolstoy found in Karenin: the wounded pride, the inability to stoop to tenderness that has been bred in him by long contact with Russian society and political status-seeking. Unfortunately, Richardson's role exists in a rather dull adaptation of the novel, directed by Julien Duvivier from a screenplay he wrote with Jean Anouilh and Guy Morgan. Although Vivien Leigh was certainly a tantalizing choice for the title role, she makes a fragile Anna -- no surprise, as she was recovering from tuberculosis, a miscarriage, and a bout with depression that seems to have begun her descent into bipolar disorder. At times, especially in the 19th-century gowns designed by Cecil Beaton, she evokes a little of the wit and backbone of Scarlett O'Hara, but she has no chemistry with her Vronsky, the otherwise unremembered Irish actor Kieron Moore. It's not surprising that producer Alexander Korda gave Moore third billing, promoting Richardson above him. The production, too, is rather drab, especially when compared to the opulence that MGM could provide in its 1935 heyday. There's a toy train early in the film that the special effects people try to pass off as full-size by hiding it behind an obviously artificial snowstorm. As usual, this Anna Karenina is all about building up to Anna's famous demise, this time by taking us into her foreboding nightmare about a railroad worker she saw at the beginning of her affair with Vronsky. And also as usual, the half of the novel dealing with Levin, Tolstoy's stand-in character, is scuttled. In this version, Levin (Niall MacGinnis) is a balding middle-aged man whose only function is to be rejected by Kitty (Sally Ann Howes), who is then thrown over for Anna by Vronsky. There's a perfunctory scene that gives a happy ending to the Levin-Kitty story, but it adds nothing but length to the film. Some of the scenes featuring the supporting cast, especially those with Martita Hunt as Princess Betsy, bring the film to flickering life, but there aren't enough of them to overcome the general dullness.