Saturday Night Cinema: Anna Karenina (1948)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema presentation is the 1948 adaption of Anna Karenina, starring the transcendent Vivian Leigh playing the iconic Anna.

In this 1948 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Vivien Leigh plays the title role, a 19th-century Russian gentlewoman married to Czarist official Ralph Richardson. Though her marriage is not intolerable, Anna is swept off her feet by dashing young military officer Vronsky. The ensuing scandal ruins Anna’s status in society.

It is a sort of “exquisitely sumptuous misfire,” to quote one critic, but it’s still quite great. I think critics were tough on Leigh because they compared her performance to the actress who previously played Karenina: Greta Garbo.

If you haven’t seen this adaption produced by Sir Alexander Korda for London Film Productions, do.

Superb film version of the Tolstoy novel, with an extraordinary Vivien Leigh at the peak of her beauty and talent.
January 13, 2006
Phil Hall
vivien

The NY Times’ Bosley Crowther was less enthusiastic:

….in this clearly sub-arctic rendering of Tolstoy’s titanic tale about the nineteenth-century Russian lady who loved, unwisely, too much of a swell, the whole rash accumulation of her love for the Count has been brushed in and her fall for this dashing young guardsman is about as convincing as a slap on the wrist. Likewise, her later desolation at her lover’s evasions and neglect seem to have no more passion in it than a sigh over the wilting of a flower.

On the other hand, Anna’s exchanges with her selfish, neglectful spouse often achieve the intensity of the temperature in a deep-freeze. Cold, bitter splinters of frustration rifle the air between them, and whatever there is of commentary on social rigidness is in these scenes.

The only apparent explanation for this curious shift of interest in the film is the obvious inequality of the performers in the key roles. Miss Leigh, of course, might manage to turn on the steam either way—although she does seem surprisingly lacking in romantic vitality at those times when a slight bit of extra pressure would be greatly appreciated by all. But Kieron Moore, a new Irish actor, is so plainly inadequate in the role of the supposedly irresistible Count Vronsky that disinterest can be understood. Lantern-jawed and peculiarly vapid, Mr. Moore plays a hot-shot Muscovite with all the romantic fierceness of one of those uniformed ushers at the Roxy’s door.

In contrast, Ralph Richardson’s performance as the husband of the faithless heroine is a beautiful piece of illustration of the qualities of cold pomposity. Saturnine, rigid, punctilious, he displays in his every scene precisely those characteristics which drive Anna to rebellion and despair. In fact, so emphatic and superior is Mr. Richardson’s job that it is not at all surprising that he should seem the center in the piece and that Miss Leigh should slowly disintegrate into a whining, maudlin, vain, self-pitying dame.

Unfortunately, this shift of interest does not in any way tend to a fuller understanding of the characters in Tolstoy’s book—nor, indeed, of the practical reasons why Sir Alex made this film. The rest of the cast, while magnificent in Cecil Beaton costumes and against expensive Russian scenery, is British to the core and contributes little more in the way of personality than a confusion of indistinguishable Russian names. Mr. Duvivier’s direction keeps them all in a slow, aimless whirl.

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ANNA KARENINA, screen play by Jean Anoulih, Guy Morgan and Julien Duvivier based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Julien Duvivier; produced by Sir Alexander Korda for London Film Productions and released by Twentieth Century-Fox. At the Roxy.
Anna Karenina . . . . . Vivien Leigh
Karenin . . . . . Ralph Richardson
Count Vronsky . . . . . Kieron Moore
Stepan Oblonsky . . . . . Hugh Dempster
Dolly Oblonsky . . . . . Mary Kerridge
Princess Shcherbatsky . . . . . Marie Lohr
Prince Shcherbatsky . . . . . Frank Tickle
Kitty Shcherbatsky . . . . . Sally Ann Howes
Levin . . . . . Niall MacGinnis
Nikolai . . . . . Michael Gough
Princess Betsy Tverskoy . . . . . Martita Hunt
Countess Lydia Ivanovna . . . . . Heather Thatcher
Countess Vronsky . . . . . Helen Haye
Princess Natalia . . . . . Mary Martlew
Countess Mezhkov . . . . . Ruby Miller
Colonel Vronsky . . . . . Austin Trevor
Prince Makhotin . . . . . Guy Verney
Lawyer . . . . . John Salew
Enrico . . . . . Gino Cervi
Giuseppe . . . . . Jeremy Spencer

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