BBC Video // 1961 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 14th, 2009
In a world of power and privilege, one woman dared to obey her heart.
It's either a work of high art, or a simple soap opera made majestic thanks to its Baroque Era setting. It was the brainchild of a Russian writer who had previously mandated that his epic War and Peace be viewed as more than just a novel, a historical chronicle, or a work of narrative poetry. It has been the source of dozens of dramatizations, everything from literal translation mini-series to post-modern revisionist "re-imaginings," and many a famous actress has taken a turn as Tolstoy's damned lady of means who finds herself trapped by the love she longed to experience. And yet, for all its pros and cons, all its college course conventions and forced scholarly classicism, Anna Karenina is just your standard story of doomed romance rationed out across a broad flamboyant landscape. No matter the star power in this pliant 1961 BBC production, the whole thing can't help but feel dodgy and dated.
When her brother, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky (or Stiva) needs some help with his marital situation, sister Anna Karenina (Claire Bloom, Look Back in Anger) travels to Moscow on his behalf. Along the way, she meets up with handsome military officer Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (Sean Connery, a year before his debut Bond movie Dr. No). He's in town to woo Oblonsky's sister-in-law, Kitty and meet up with his wealthy mother, the Countess Vronskaya. Once he sees Anna, however, it is love (and lust) at first sight. Initially, the young woman avoids Vronsky's advances. She is married to a high ranking government official, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, and has a young son named Sergei at home. Still as fate consistently bring these two together, Anna and Vronsky become lovers. The scandal this causes leads her to leave her husband (and her beloved child), while he resigns his commission and takes a farm house in the country. Eventually, Anna's despair over not seeing her son and the isolation of living in sin within Russian society is too much to bear.
Whenever analysts stereotype British television, one assumes that this BBC production of Anna Karenina is right up there among the rest of the standards. A talky, stagy encapsulation of Tolstoy's novel (missing a couple of major subplots and more than a few characters), it is the perfect epitome of dry, dusty, drawing room fare. You can just hear the clipped accented accolades proclaim the "highly professional and polished" aspects of the 108 minute drama. Frankly, there is nothing really wrong with this version. Bloom and Connery are quite good, and the rest of the cast -- made up of quality UK thespians -- deliver on the material with typical aplomb. Where the trouble lies is in the story itself. As with most classic literature, the account of Anna's falling out of favor because of a scandalous love affair is, by today's ideals, the oldest of old hats. Even worse, when we get to the scenes where Karenin refuses to let his wife see their child, the concept of face and public appearances seems downright ridiculous. What made sense 130 years ago just can't fly among the modern parlance. The fatal twist of fate that results makes everything seem foolish.
Still, for those in love with the novel, the narrative, of the names on the marquee, this translated to television work will surely hit the spot. The transfer, taken from what looks like a decent kinescope like copy of the show, has lots to offer. The 1.33:1 full screen image is sharp and loaded with many monochrome details, though every once in a while you will definitely see some old school analog problems (flaring, ghosting, etc.). The sound, on the other hand, is tinny and rather shallow. The Dolby Digital recreation of the mono mix is erratic, but that's to be expected with technology so old. Don't come looking to this DVD for added content, however. There are no extras offered, the menu providing options for scenes and subtitles (English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) only.
In some ways, this DVD is designed for the classroom, a teacher able to put
it on and in a little less than two hours, give students Tolstoy without the
necessity of picking up a book and actually reading. Will you experience all the
lyrical turns of phrase and literary grace of the novel? No. Will you get a
Cliff's Notes version of Anna Karenina without delving into a
dense, detailed look at Russia during the Czar? Sure. If you come in expecting
something epic, you'll be sadly disappointed. If you want basic Anna
Karenina with fine performances and watchable digital tech specs, this will
serve your needs adequately.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated