Longer and more complete, yes...but better? Acorn has released Anna Karenina, a 3-disc, 10-episode collection of the 1977 BBC television serial adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel (it appeared here in the States on PBS' Masterpiece Theater in early 1978). Starring Nicola Pagett, Eric Porter, Stuart Wilson, Robert Swann, Davyd Harries, Caroline Langrishe, Carole Nimmons, Marilyn Le Conte, Paul Spurrier, and a host of familiar U.K. performers, this long, long version of Tolstoy's novel is the most faithful--at the very least in terms of representing Tolstoy's many plotlines--of the various cinematic adaptations I've seen over the years. But does that greater surface fidelity to the material make it an aesthetically more worthwhile movie/miniseries? No extras for these as-expected less-than-sterling fullscreen transfers.
It's impossible to encapsulate Tolstoy's 900+ page narrative in just one summary paragraph, but here, at least, are the barest-bones of the story, for those who don't know it. Beautiful, bored, emotionally unfulfilled Anna Karenina (Nicola Paggett) is on her way from St. Petersburg to Moscow to intervene in her brother's crumbling marriage. Dilettente and serial cheater Prince Stiva Oblonsky (Davyd Harries), has finally gone too far with his patient wife, Dolly Shcherbatsky (Carol Nimmons), having had an affair with their children's French governess. At the Moscow train station, Anna, having heard about Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (Stuart Wilson) from his mother, Countess Vronsky (Marry Morris) on the train trip, suddenly sees the handsome cavalry officer (there to meet his mother), and an electric charge of attraction passes between the two--a connection that is obliquely commented upon, by the Fates, when Anna and Vronsky witness the horrible death of a porter under the wheels of the train. As an ardent Vronsky openly pursues an at-first passively willing Anna--a popular sport of infidelity that the so-called "sophisticated" Muscovites approve of as long as appearances are kept and marriages remain intact--Stiva's friend, Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin (Robert Swann) sees his chance to marry young Kitty Shcherbatsky (Caroline Langrishe), Dolly's sister, vanish, when Vronsky, Kitty's previous suitor, dumps her. Levin, a nobleman who chooses to live on his country estate and work in the fields with his peasants, eventually wins over Kitty. However, Vronsky's affair with Anna becomes corrosive, as Anna's recalcitrant, image-conscious husband, government official Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (Eric Porter), first tries to "make do" with the affair, before seeking a punishing divorce. His vacillating resolve, however, puts Anna in emotional and legal limbo with an increasingly stressed Vronsky--a matter not helped by Anna giving birth to Vronsky's baby, and her subsequent abandonment of her son, Seriozha (Paul Spurrier), to live with Vronsky in Italy. The two lovers, however, can't find peace there, and return to Russia, where hypocritical high society accepts Vronsky and vilifies Anna, as their relationship implodes.
I've written two reviews of Anna Karenina adaptations for DVDTalk--Aleksandr Zarkhi' 1967 70mm epic with Tatiana Samoilova, back in 2006, and Julien Duvivier's 1948 version for Alexander Korda, with Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson, in 2007--and I've seen quite a few more over the years. I'm certainly no expert on the original text (I read it years ago in college...and I'm going on year 30 for stopping and starting War and Peace...), but this BBC television serial from 1977, of all the versions of the book I've seen, is the most faithful in terms of physically putting down most of Tolstoy's plot and characters. Of course there are still abbreviations here (Levin's life on his estate is greatly simplified, as are aspects of his marriage, for instance), but for the most part, this version stays close to Tolstoy the storyteller. How successful it is at putting down the more complex elements of Tolstoy the artist's vision is another matter. Looking over my own writings, plus browsing through multiple reviews for many of the other A K adaptations over the years (apparently nobody liked that last one with Keira Knightley and Jude Law), it seems pretty clear that the only thing any of these versions of Anna Karenina have in common is that they're all found to be lacking in some aspect or another that the viewer held dear in the literary work...which is par for the course for 99.9% of all movie adaptations of beloved, "classic" fictional works. No movie or even a miniseries could completely visualize what Tolstoy achieves in Anna Karenina--that's why books are different experiences than movies (and size doesn't matter: look at a slim little novella like The Great Gatsby, which they'll never be able to film "correctly"). Reading it is an internal experience, while a movie or TV series are by their very format, external, triggering entirely different aesthetic responses. Getting mentally "lost" on the printed page, with zero other distractions or stimuli other than our imagination, is quite different than watching flashing pictures made for us, as actors speak words to us. So this idea that there's a "perfect" Anna Karenina adaptation either out there or just waiting to be made, is nonsense; it's always going to be a compromise over the novel. The book is always going to be better at doing what the author wanted done.
With that caveat, how does this BBC serial version pan out? Well...it's rather like one step forward, one step back. Adapted by Donald Wilson (the far superior The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills), the inclusion of characters and subplots that normally don't make the cut in +/- 2 hour movie adaptations of A K is initially quite bracing--particularly the emphasis on Levin's story here (he receives almost as much screen time as the lovers, the same weight he receives from Tolstoy). However, more scenes with Levin and Kitty and his drunken brother Nikolai (Nicholas Jones gives the serial's best performance: tortured, conflicted, tragic) doesn't necessarily mean we'll see more context. We're set up to get some possible insights into Levin's dealings with politics and his peasants (even elaborate--for the BBC, that is--location shooting out in the fields), only to have it drop away before anything is made of it. And nowhere in this serial is Tolstoy's contrasting and comparing between the two sets of lovers: Anna and Vronsky, and Levin and Kitty. The scenes are there, but the script does nothing with commenting on their ironic mirroring. More Levin here may be closer to Tolstoy than other cinematic versions...but he doesn't make much more sense here than he does in all those other adaptations, either.
More screen time doesn't equate to a more memorable visual aesthetic, either. From a nostalgia standpoint alone, I've always enjoyed that dated, sedate, studio-shot style of U.K. television work from this time period, right down to the crappy video interiors and grainy, muddy 16mm exterior work (more money than usual was apparently spent here, with location shooting in Hungry--there's even real snow--making this an exception compared to most BBC serials of that time). It's also a style that can work in the viewer's favor, concentrating attention on the dialogue and the performances, which are usually held in tight close-ups for the tube. That being said...this Anna Karenina is worryingly static, particularly during scenes that demand good direction, regardless of the medium's limitations at the time (or rather more accurately: the limitations of the production capabilities, due to budget concerns). The three most crucial scenes in the story--the lovers' first meeting, Vronsky's horse race (a metaphor for their affair, and the tipping point for Karenin), and Anna's death scene--are essentially botched here by director Basil Coleman, with Anna's final goodbye particularly poorly staged and executed. After the desultory choreography of Anna's death walk, and the matter-of-fact blank look from Wilson as he stare off into space, the credits immediately roll and we angrily wonder why we wasted 10 hours on something that delivered such an inconsequential, uninspiring resolution (to put it far more crudely than I need to--due to my anger at such blase insufficiency: an elephantine ten hours of exposition leads up to a flea's fart of a climax).
So, if "more" in terms of characters and plotlines doesn't equal "depth" in this Anna Karenina, can we at least get an Anna and Vronsky that challenge and engage us? Well...yes, after a fashion. Strangely, this version of the story gets the gradual dissolution of the relationship down well, with plenty of time devoted to Anna's increasingly possessive hysteria and jealousy, and Vronsky's disillusionment and apathetic acceptance of personal defeat. Which is fine--but we never believe they're hungrily passionate about each other at the story's beginning. The famous scene at the railroad station, when the future lovers' eyes meet for the first time, is handled in a frankly laughably mundane fashion, giving us not even an inkling of the erotic fire that is supposedly charging through these fatally mismatched lovers. While the screenplay does well in helping the viewer understand the hypocrisy of the Russian elite accepting their affair at the beginning, only to damn Anna alone when her marriage crumbles, the love story has to be at least grounded in believable carnal desire...which Nicola Pagett and Stuart Wilson fail to deliver. Wilson's Vronsky comes over a bit older, a bit more weary and cynical than the usual young, callow Vronskys seen in other adaptations, so we have to have an Anna that's instantly and fatally attractive--if not physically, then spiritually. And Pagett, to my regret, can't pull that off. Pagett was one of the best things in the classic U.K. serial, Upstairs, Downstairs, and there was some minor buzz about her here in the State when she simultaneously scored Anna and a co-lead in the long-delayed Love Story sequel, Oliver's Story, back in '78. When that movie failed miserably, her brief international heat was over, and it's not hard to see why here: she can't carry the serial when she absolutely has to. She fails to make us understand why Vronsky would throw everything away for her, and her subsequent emotional breakdown is hardly sympathetic. It's always been a tough slog to actually feel sorry for the child-leaving Anna, but Pagett's mean-toned, off-putting descent hardly compensates--something the incandescent (and equally screwed-up) Vivien Leigh did effortlessly (Pagett's postpartum near-death scene is unintentionally amusing in its awfulness). Any cinematic adaptation of Anna Karenina, regardless of drawbacks in script or direction (as are obvious in this serial), necessarily is going to succeed or fail on the actress playing the central character. With Nicola Pagett's miscued, unpleasant turn here, this Anna Karenina, already compromised, resoundingly fails.
Acorn does their standard warning about the quality of the original elements used here for the fullscreen, 1.37:1 transfer...but they needn't bother: vintage TV fans are used to the muddy color and slightly fuzzy images from this period of U.K. TV production.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track seems to have been re-recorded at a lower-than-expected volume; lucky there were English subtitles for some of the more garbled passage.
More equals less. This 1977 BBC long-form serial adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina may have more time to feature characters and plotlines not normally seen in other shorter screen adaptations. That generosity of time, however, doesn't equate to a deeper experience of the work: spotty script context, flat, sometimes downright inept direction, and the central miscued performance of Nicola Pagett (as much as it pains me to write that for one of my U.K. favorites), all conspire to make this Anna Karenina a fatally derailed slog. A rental, perhaps, for completists, but everyone else can skip it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.