Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
For many years I dismissed any adaptations of this classic because of the subject matter. I assumed a story about adultery would have no redeeming value. I was wrong. The author was a very religious man whose literary works reflected criticisms on the hypocrisy of society, as well as showed the consequences of sin and underlined the importance of forgiveness.
With the marriage of her brother and his wife is threatened by his infidelities, Anna Karenina (Helen McCrory) leaves her eight year old son and mild-mannered husband Alexei (Stephen Dillane) in order to smooth their ruffled feathers. On the train she makes the acquaintance of a countess traveling to meet her son during his brief sojourn in Moscow. Handsome and accomplished, Count Vronsky (Kevin McKidd) is enchanted with Anna but associated in public with the sweet and naive Kitty (Paloma Baeza). Marriage between them is hoped for but not impending, and Vronsky soon makes it apparent that his interest is in Anna, in spite of her family and the potential scandal of an affair. Bored with convention and desirous of passion, Anna soon takes refuge in his arms, risking the anger and reputation of Alexei, who is not unaware of her indiscretions. Willing to ignore her affairs if she continues to keep up appearances and does not bring her lover into the house, Alexei soon finds their affair intolerable and threatens her with divorce.
Abandoned by the man she hoped to marry, Kitty's ill health forces her into the country, where she is reunited with Levin (Douglas Henshall), a man whose proposal she turned down when believing she would become the count's wife. Their story unfolds against the nuances and tragedies of the adulterous couple and Alexei, underlining the social hypocrisies of the time and painting a realistic image of insecurity and desire. Tolstoy was writing not an "epic romance" but a novel in which many characters experience life-altering decisions. The relationship between Vronsky and Anna is contrasted with the one between Kitty and Levin, in a direct appeal for us to see the progression of one couple's descent and inevitable destruction, and the survival and growth of the other. It is far more complicated than it seems, with many characters and subplots that for the most part the miniseries has captured beautifully. My only complaint is that it can be hard to follow in the terms of trying to keep straight who is related to whom and how.
Some fans of the novel believe this is a horrible adaptation based on the casting decisions, but for the most part audiences agree it is the most faithful representation of the book. Some of its themes are forgiveness (vital in the lives of most of the women and Alexei), social injustices and hypocrisy (the profession of faith by the masses and the adultery tolerated in the upper class), and the personal consequences of decisions. What I liked most is that it is not all about the lovers. It does not excuse or romanticize their affair, because it shows the pain it causes her husband. Neither is he depicted as a cold-hearted fiend, but as a deeply wronged and extremely honorable man. In the beginning he is bitter but never cruel. His hatred takes an astonishing turn when, believing Anna will die, he extends forgiveness to her -- and from that moment on, his animosity is gone and his priorities shift. Through these actions and a magnificent, quiet performance from Dillane, Alexei became my favorite character.
The rest of the cast is quite good and I thought the romance with Levin and Kitty was sweet. The costume design is exquisite and the music haunting, four hours of visual splendor entwined with Russian countryside and bitterly cold nights. The affair is kept restrained but there is one graphic sex scene and two other scenes where heavy breathing accompanies frantic close-ups of clothing being removed (one of them ends just as they get down to business, the other fades into a morning-after shot). Alexei puts his hand up his wife's skirt before she stops him. There are several scenes of various stages of undress (in one, we see the Count and Anna in a tub; his hand over her breast prevents the camera from seeing too much; in another she straddles him on the floor and it's apparent he's not wearing anything under his robe). The camera pans through an arch and we overhear heavy breathing coming from a couple behind a column. Conversation revolves around adultery and immorality. Levin confesses that he has been with many prostitutes and Alexei implies early on that Anna will not neglect his husbandly needs in spite of her lover.
There is a fairly gruesome scene early on in which the camera lingers on someone who has fallen beneath a train. Severed body parts are shown, seeping blood into the tracks. Anna attempts to prevent Alexei from taking incriminating love letters and he throws her to the floor. There is a riding accident and a horse is put down (off camera). A man attempts to kill himself with a revolver and misses. There is an implication that someone has committed suicide. Religion plays a significant role in the second half of the production. The ordeal compels Alexei to return to his faith, which changes him significantly (in Anna's eyes, his decisions based on newly reinforced beliefs make him even more of a monster). Levin and Kitty have the final moments of the film, in which he asks if his atheism bothers her (he broke down and prayed when he thought she would die), and she responds that he will find God with time.
It is a haunting film for anyone interested in moral ambiguities willing to look at it as more than entertainment. Tolstoy was for the Russians what Dickens was for the English -- a man of many characters and complicated plots willing to take a critical view of what he believed were social injustices. I'm sorry for its momentary faults, because it was one of the most fascinating costume dramas I have ever seen.