Issue 61 (2018)

Karen Shakhnazarov: Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story (Anna Karenina. Istoriia Vronskogo, 2017)

reviewed by Frederick H. White © 2018

anna kareninaLeo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina (1873–77) has been adapted for the cinema nearly thirty times, with seven adaptations by Russian / Soviet directors. Karen Shakhnazarov’s latest version Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story adds to this list, but with an intriguing twist that is never fully realized. The tale of an illicit love affair is now (re)told in flashback by Count Aleksei Vronskii almost thirty years after Anna’s suicide. His interlocutor is Anna’s son Sergei Karenin, now a military doctor. The two meet in a field hospital in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese war. Shakhnazarov intertwines elements of Vikentii Veresaev’s stories of this military conflict into his filmic narrative in order to relocate the present-day of the film to 1904. In Shakhnazarov’s version, Vronskii has been wounded and while recuperating, Karenin visits him several times to try to find an explanation for his mother’s actions.

anna kareninaThe challenge in a film adaptation such as this is that not only is the novel well-known, but an entire cinematic vocabulary has been created for the Anna–Vronskii relationship through successive adaptations. Shakhnazarov’s selection of Elizaveta Boiarskaia and her real-life husband Maksim Matveev as Anna and Vronskii would be judged not only by Tolstoy’s own description of these characters, but within the larger cultural memory of previous film adaptations. In particular, comparisons between the various Annas would be unavoidable. Arguably, the most successful portrayal was offered by Russian actress Tat’iana Samoilova (1967), but also Greta Garbo (1927; 1935), Vivien Leigh (1948), Sophie Marceau (1997) and Keira Knightley (2012) have left a lasting mark as Anna. Therefore, a reorientation of the narrative focus on Vronskii potentially could offer a new and compelling perspective.

anna kareninaIn April 2017, an eight-episode television serial of Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story aired on Russia-1. The TV version was greeted with negative reviews, which adversely impacted the film-length version’s debut in June. Yet, the film version offered the visual grandeur of Imperial Russia, displayed on the big screen. The film studio Mosfilm succeeded in creating an appealing visual experience for theater audiences with impeccable costumes, unique lighting (including a candlelit ball sequence) and large-scale events such as the Imperial horse race, opera and military battles. These aspects of the film were recognized at the NIKA Awards in March 2018 with nominations in Production Design, Music and Costume Design. In fact, these compositional and visual aspects of the film are the most commendable features of this movie.

Where the film is less than successful is in the areas of acting and film editing. On screen, Boiarskaia is not captivating and her scenes with Matveev are passionless. This might be in part because Matveev’s Vronskii is so utterly unexpressive that it is difficult to know if he is smitten with Anna, in love with her, overwhelmed by their situation and/or grieving her loss. Also, Boiarskaia moves too quickly from cold ambivalence to tormented guilt. After all, the audience must first become emotionally embroiled in the affair in order to become empathetic towards Vronskii and Anna as everything in their lives falls apart. In this case, it does not happen on screen. Is this due to the actors’ poor performances or is this a result of editing a TV serial into a two-hour film? Certainly, the film editing did not enhance the actors’ work.

anna kareninaAlso significant is that this is, supposedly, Vronskii’s story. Vronskii himself reminds Karenin that “we only remember what we want to remember.” Therefore, it would be appropriate to linger on what he perceived to be the best and worst elements of his relationship with Anna. Instead, the seduction is almost completely ignored and the perspective is less of Vronskii’s predicament and more of Anna’s plight. In fact, there are many moments depicted when Vronskii was not present and could not “remember” what had occurred. For example, some of the best interactions between actors are between Boiarskaia and Vitalii Kishchenko playing the role of Anna’s husband Karenin. Why would Vronskii’s memories avoid the passion of their affair and privilege the divorce of Anna and her husband, if this is his story?

anna kareninaThe answer is that this film, like most of the other film adaptations, eliminates features of Tolstoy’s novel and concentrates on the theme of adultery. Nothing remains of the Dolly-Stiva or the Kitty-Levin storylines. In fact, Irina Makoveeva has suggested that certain episodes are always included in film adaptations of Anna Karenina and in reviewing the list only “an escape to Italy” is avoided in Shakhnazarov’s version (2015, 278-79). Where Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story does seem to innovate is that it does not depict Anna’s actual suicide; only her corpse is briefly viewed by Vronskii afterward. Both Makoveeva and Yuri Leving (2016) have addressed the significance of this scene in previous adaptations and it is puzzling that Shakhnazarov would avoid such a signature moment. What this suggests is that this film did not exploit Vronskii’s perspective to the fullest, except possibly in the absence of the suicide scene, mainly following the narrative structure of previous adaptations. Granted, on the periphery is also Veresaev’s “During the Japanese War,” that intertwines with the Anna-Vronskii storyline, but this military element adds little to the overall film and virtually nothing to the depiction of Anna’s adultery.

As a result, Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story is a visually stunning costume drama that revisits a now well-known story of infidelity. Yet, Boiarskaia and Matveev offer a dispassionate love affair that belabors Anna’s predicament. More significantly, Shakhnazarov’s unrealized innovation in offering Vronskii’s version of events disappoints expectations more than challenges audiences to look anew at Tolstoy’s novel. For all of its potential, this film seems to have missed many opportunities afforded to such a popular novel and film adaptation.

Frederick H. White
Utah Valley University

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Works Cited

Leving, Yuri. 2016. “The Eye-deology of Trauma: Killing Anna Karenina Softly,” in Border Crossing: Russian Literature into Film. Edited by Alexander Burry and Frederick H. White, 102–20. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Makoveeva, Irina. 2015. “Screening Anna Karenina: Myth via Novel or Novel via Myth,” in Tolstoy on Screen. Edited by Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael A. Denner, 275–97. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story, Russia, 2017
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Screenplay: Karen Shakhnazarov, Aleksei Buzin
DoP: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Composer: Iurii Poteenko
Production Design: Sergei Fevralev
Cast: Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Kirill Grebenshchikov, Viktoriia Isakova, Vitalii Kishchenko, Ivan Kolesnikov, Tat’iana Liutaeva, Anastasiia Makeeva, Maksim Matveev, Makar Mikhalkin, Dmitrii Miller, Dmitrii Savianenko, Ivan Verkhovykh, Aleksei Vertkov
Producers: Karen Shakhnazarov and Anton Zlatopol’skii

Karen Shakhnazarov: Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story (Anna Karenina. Istoriia Vronskogo, 2017)

reviewed by Frederick H. White © 2018

Updated: 2018