I originally put off watching it because I started reading the novel late last year and wanted to finish it before I saw any film versions.
Alas, I am a slow reader. After pushing Anna Karenina from its January U.K. release date to its April U.S. release date on my “to watch” list, I finally gave up on trying to finish reading Tolstoy’s novel before watching any film versions. (It’s not as if I don’t how the novel ends, and besides, caring too much about “spoilers” is a foolish preoccupation.)
As I mentioned, this was the second adaptation of the novel for sound film, but there were numerous silent versions that preceded both. The first was director Maurice Maître’s 1911 Russian version, which starred M. Sorochtina as Anna Karenina. The second was Vladimir Gardin’s 1914 Russian version, which starred Mariya Germanova. The third was J. Gordon Edwards’s 1915 American version, which starred Betty Nansen. The fourth was Márton Garas’s 1918 Hungarian version, which starred Irén Varsányi. The fifth was Frederic Zelnik’s 1919 German version.
Finally, there was Edmund Goulding’s 1927 silent film, entitled simply Love, which starred Greta Garbo as Anna and John Gilbert as her illicit lover, Count Vronsky.
The first sound version, Clarence Brown’s Anna Karenina (1935), again starred Garbo as Anna and Fredric March as Vronsky. I haven’t seen any of the silent versions, but I recently watched the 1935 version.
There seems to be a general consensus that the 1935 film is the more definitive version, while the 1948 version is well-made but essentially flawed. For me, the 1935 version played like filmed Cliffs Notes. For the first hour of the film, I recognized all the major plot points and important bits of dialogue, enacted in more or less the manner I pictured them, neither failing to meet nor exceeding my expectations. (The next 30 minutes or so went past the point I’ve read up to in the novel, so I can’t speak to them.)
The music, lighting, cinematography, set design, and costumes are all passable in the 1935 version, but they’re really stellar in the 1948 version. Duvivier’s film evokes 19th-century Czarist Russia in a more powerful and magical way than Brown’s film did. The wintry, nighttime scenes in train stations — so important in the novel — are dark, snow-swept, and full of portent. The interiors are richly appointed and realistically lighted.
Where Duvivier’s version can’t always compete with the earlier version is in the choice of actors. Fredric March, who played Vronsky in the 1935 version, was for me the most interesting character in the film, while Kieron Moore just doesn’t make as strong an impression in the same role. He’s tall and handsome, but in the end he’s little more than a perfectly coiffed mustache in search of a personality. And Sally Ann Howes, who plays the pretty young Kitty Scherbatsky in the 1948 version, just isn’t as appealing or as good an actress as Maureen O’Sullivan.
Whether or not Vivien Leigh is as good as Greta Garbo, however, is a more difficult question. Garbo casts a long shadow, and is in some sense “untouchable.” For my money, though, Leigh gives a much more interesting performance as Anna. Garbo’s beautiful face is a sort of blank canvas onto which viewers can project their own desires, but Leigh crafts a fully realized character, whether one cares for her or not. In this sense, I think the casting of Moore as Vronsky — the man she falls in love with and destroys her marriage for — actually works quite well. Anna Karenina is not a simplistic novel in which a woman in an unhappy marriage finds true love but is constrained by rigid societal rules. Anna’s essential flaw is that she falls in love with a man who is handsome and charming, but essentially weak, and not worthy of everything she gives up for him. (I’ll still take March over Moore any day, but Moore’s uninteresting performance doesn’t really detract from the greatness of Duvivier’s film for me.)
In the 1935 version, Basil Rathbone gave a terrific performance as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenin, but terrific as it was, it was a one-note performance. Ralph Richardson, however, is just as officious and unlikable in the early going, but he evolves, allowing the viewer to see his pain and anguish despite the fact that Anna is a more natural point of identification.
Of course, what no film can convey is the novel’s epic scope or its meticulously crafted evocation of everyday life. Anna Karenina was published in serial fashion over the course of nearly four years, so characters with whom we spend days, weeks, months, and even years in the novel appear in the film for a few minutes here and there, giving the viewer no real sense of their importance in the grand scheme of the narrative.
But that’s how it goes in the dirty business of film adaptations of great novels.
I liked Clarence Brown’s 1935 version, and I’m glad I saw it, but Julien Duvivier’s 1948 version wove a spell over me. There are certain scenes I can’t stop thinking about, and I loved Vivien Leigh’s performance as Anna. It’s a movie I’m looking forward to seeing again some day. There are many, many film adaptations of Anna Karenina out there competing for your entertainment dollars, and I’ve only seen two of them, but of the two, I much prefer this one.