1904. The Russian-Japanese War. Manchuria. Russian military hospital on the retreat stations in a half-destroyed Chinese village. The head of the hospital Sergey Karenin learns that the ... See full summary »
The limitations of a late 70's BBC budget are everywhere apparent in this nonetheless absolutely captivating production. One only wishes a proper film could have been made with this same cast and script, but of course that would have probably drained the production of what makes it so spectacular - its sheer expansiveness. In its nearly 10-hour runtime, it covers practically all of the novel's myriad episodes, and the dizzying complexities of its timeless characters - Anna's at once near schizophrenia and almost magical charm and poise, Vronsky's extreme selfishness and rakish abandon, yet unquestionable honor and devotion, and Karenin's cruel, detached vindictiveness tempered by his capacity for forgiveness and tenderness. The script is so heavily in the spirit of Tolstoy's writings that quotations from the original novel do not stick out like a sore thumb, as they do in Tom Stoppard's shockingly amateurish script for the Keira Knightley adaptation, but are rather an organic fabric of this labyrinthine and captivating piece. Perhaps hindsight drives this perception given Ms. Pagett's unfortunate mental breakdown subsequent to this production, but she is so effortlessly a living, breathing, enchanting creature suffering from truly intractable emotional and existential distress that it makes the knowledge of her end, which rather intentionally pervades the novel even without its cultural resonance, lend an intense poignance to the film. She is also every bit as beautiful as Anna should be. Supporting characters, from Oblonsky to Betsy (in particular the flippant Countess, whose true, though tested, devotion to Anna is richly filled in here) are handled spectacularly well. But the production in many ways belongs to Stuart Wilson's Vronsky, who manages to convey precisely what makes Vronsky uniquely appealing to a woman of depth - he is a melancholic, inspired, fiery, Byronic hero, and not just a preening pretty face with all of his hair (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I sadly look at you). Those who were impatient with the Levin twin-plot in the novel will be distressed to see it nearly intact in this version, but Levin is refreshingly well-played and spirited, so that his scenes have a life to them typically denied the almost perfunctory inclusion of the character in most adaptations that do him the service of not cutting him. Kitty is also incredibly beautiful, age appropriate, and charming, so her scenes, while never quite living up to Anna's, prove a welcome distraction.
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