Writers: Sergei Solovyov, Leo Tolstoy (novel)
Stars: Tatyana Drubich, Oleg Yankovskiy, Yaroslav Boyko
In terms of the sheer number of cinematic adaptations, Anna Karenina ranks close behind Shakespeare’s Othello: by my count, it has twenty four screen incarnations, a vast majority of them produced in the US and UK, dating from 1910 to Sergei Solov’ev’s most recent venture, a television mini-series fused into full-length feature. This history, together with the fact that the version reviewed here is the English-language one intended for worldwide distribution, makes it impossible to map the film in easy terms of fidelity and tradition. As Christian Metz asserted as early as 1977, evaluating an adaptation against a literary “original” is a meaningless exercise devoted to clashing phantasms in the reader’s or viewer’s imaginations; Robert Stam, more recently, demonstrates that it obscures the rich dialogic set of relations between the literary and film medium (Metz 12; Stam 55).
Saturated with deep color and attempting as comprehensive a view of the nineteenth-century “loose baggy monster” of the novel, the movie communes not so much with the 1967 Soviet production but rather with the globalized genre of Masterpiece Theater on the one hand and, on the other, the Hollywood epic(the most recent Karenina of the latter type was released in 1997, directed by Bernard Rose and starring Sophie Marceau and Alfred Molina as Anna and Levin). What makes Solov’ev’s version stand out—and simultaneously, constitutes some of the more frustrating moments of viewing it—is the attempt to do something new with film form and language.
Just like literary fidelity, the criterion of historical authenticity haunts all period dramas based on “great books.” In terms of costume and sets, in fact, the film falls short: although lavishly appointed and panoramically filmed, the appearance of people and places seems overdetermined and occasionally anachronistic. The dresses, for example, look synthetic and machine-styled; the preponderance of the national flag in virtually all public places, including the skating rink, speaks more of the (post)-Putin than the Tolstoyan era; and poorly-heated nineteenth-century houses could not possibly support so many tropical plants in corridors and stairwells.
A far bolder engagement with the concept of period, however, redeems these details by making Solov’ev’s Karenina qualitatively different from its predecessors. The film strives to recuperate cinema itself as a thing of the past, a notion often lost in the dichotomy between a nineteenth-century literary work and the expectations of contemporary spectatorship. Rather than construct a so-called realistic rendition of Tolstoy’s narrative by using every innovative technique of continuity, the film reaches back to the structural and metaphorical repertoire of the silent age. First—and this is an ironic moment when the dictates of the mini-series fit the experience of early cinema in a surprisingly complementary way—it condenses the eight-part novel into a five-part numbered sequence, each of which is given a descriptive title such as “Snowstorm” or, in the best tradition of dark romances, “An Awful Woman.” Apart from these titles announcing every part, the film actively uses intertitles: displayed as text quoted from the novel, they act as both explanatory devices and fillers. Intertwining reading and viewing is a particularly self-conscious gesture towards the problem of adaptation, but the effect is marred considerably when yet another device enters the fray. Adding the interjection of the narrator’s voice, through the patently latter-day medium of the voice-over, is a little too much (meta)text for the viewer who is just beginning to enjoy the experiment.
Reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2009 in KinoKultura